June 19, 2014

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Life Together: Confession & Communion

bonhoeffer2 225x300 Life Together: Confession & Communion Dietrich Bonhoeffer This is the fifth & final post in a series, taking an in-depth look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (CommunityThe day with othersThe Day Alone, Minstry).

As Bonhoeffer draws this work to a conclusion he refocuses his sight on the gospel and that a gospel community is made of sinners who have confessed their sin and found their salvation, thus the importance of both confession and communion.

He opens the chapter with a wonderful statement of God’s grace:

“It is the grace of the Gospel…that it confronts us with the truth and says: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come, as the sinner that you are, to God who loves you. He wants you as you are; he does not want anything from you, a sacrifice, a work; he wants you alone. ‘My son, give me thine heart’ (Prov 23:26). God has come to you to save the sinner. Be glad! This message is liberation through truth. You can hide nothing from God. The mask you wear before men will do you no good before Him. He wants to see you as you are, He wants to be gracious to you.” (p.86)

For Bonhoeffer the place of confession is vital, it is more than accountability it is being Christ to one another. We become Christ to each other, hearing the confession of sin and declaring forgiveness in the name of Jesus. The one to whom we confess keeps our confession as God keeps it.

Bonhoeffer then is sharp in his analysis of sin.

“Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light.” (p.87)

Confession breaks our reliance on self-justification. In confession we recognise sin’s mastery over us, in the forgiveness we receive we see Christ’s mastery over sin. Bonhoeffer sees no need for public confession of private sin but that one brother or sister represents the whole fellowship, and where we are in fellowship we are never alone.

Yet Bonhoeffer knows how hard confession of sin is; ‘It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride…Because this humiliation is so hard we continually scheme to evade confessing sin to a brother’. Yet it remains crucial for this very reason;

“Since the sin must come to the light some time, it is better that it happens today between me and my brother, rather than on the last day in the piercing light of the final judgement. It is a mercy that we can confess our sins to a brother. Such grace spares us the terrors of the last judgment.” (p.91)

The power of confession, though, lies not in the act of confession but because it leads us to ‘none other than Jesus Christ himself who suffered the scandalous, public death of a sinner in our stead’. Yet we also come to the cross in confession in ways many of us miss.

 

“We cannot find the Cross of Jesus if we shrink from going to the place where it is to be found, namely the public death of the sinner. And we refuse to bear the Cross when we are ashamed to take upon ourselves the shameful death of the sinner in confession.” (p.89)

So confession is death to us and death to sin, but it is also the place where ‘breakthrough to new life occurs’.

“Where sin is hatred, admitted, and forgiven, there the break with the past is made. ‘Old things are passed away’…Christ has made a new beginning with us.” (p.90)

It isn’t a law that we confess an offer and an opportunity and Bonhoeffer wonders who can afford ‘to refuse, without suffering loss, a help that God has deemed it necessary to offer?’

Although Bonhoeffer gives most space to confession, the book closes with communion – our picture of the gospel. Here you can see how important confession is – we cannot come to the table unreconciled. Confession is preparation. Mourning before the dancing.

“The day of the Lord’s Supper is an occasion of joy for the Christian community. Reconciled in their hearts with God and the brethren, the congregation receives the gift of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and, receiving that, it receives forgiveness, new life and salvation.” (p.96)

 

 

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June 17, 2014

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Life Together: Ministry

bonhoeffer1 Life Together: Ministry Dietrich Bonhoeffer This is the fourth in a series, taking an in-depth look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (CommunityThe day with others, The Day Alone, Confession & Communion).

Bonhoeffer opens this chapter with a stark warning; we can destroy Christian community. One of the ways true Christian fellowship can be broken is through self-justification which Bonhoeffer links back to the disciples arguing over who was the greatest in Luke 9:46. Whenever we compare, contrast and set ourselves up over someone else, Christian fellowship comes under attack.

Bonhoeffer, rightly, sees that much of the damage can be avoided if we learn how to speak well of others and to hold our tongue if we can’t manage that and that, intriguingly, the beginning of love for another is to learn how to speak or not speak. In other words when our posture and attitude is to build up and not tear down (with words, thoughts and deeds) then we put ourselves in a position to actually love someone.

Bonhoeffer then begins to talk of the value of every member of the fellowship, which is not particularly newsworthy in Christian theology. Christians have been talking about the value of every member finding it’s pace and role since Paul wrote about the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-27). However in the context of 1930s Germany, Bonhoeffer’s articulation of the Christian creed pushes back hard against the prevailing creed of the Nazis.

“Every Christian community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship.” (p.72)

There it is in black and white. The National Socialists are anti-Christian, killing community as they eliminate the weak, the stranger, the alien. They are not building a strong society but a weaker one. Powerful and prophetic stuff.

Next we need to discover humility or, as Bonhoeffer calls it, meekness. Bonhoeffer talks in terms of thinking little of oneself, but in reality is calling for an honest appraisal of sin and that we should all consider ourselves to be the chief of sinners.

“If my sinfulness appears to me to be in any way smaller or less detestable in comparison with the sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.” (p.74)

If we are humble then we should be prepared to offer to others the ministry of listening.

“Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.” (p.75)

Listening moves us to help. Christian community is continually built by small acts of kindness and service, ‘there is a multitude of these things wherever people live together’. Yet our own sense of importance can hinder our service of others:

“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and cancelling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions…It is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.” (p.76)

We are called to bear one another and bear with another, to support, to love through frustration and pain. Too many churches fail and split because we fail in the ministry of bearing other people.

Only when we in humility, listen, serve and bear our brothers and sisters can we speak the Word of God to them. This is not preaching but sharing gospel truths with one another. Bonhoeffer recognises this is harder than it should be;

“What a difficult thing it often is to utter the name of Jesus Christ in the presence even of a brother!” (p.81)

This is a difficult thing for many becomes often God’s Word is a reproof and a rebuke to others, which is why it so important that all the other ministries have also been done so that we know that the one bringing us God’s Word loves us through listening, serving, bearing and all done in the humility we see.

“We speak to one another on the basis of the help we both need. We admonish one another to go the way that Christ bids us to go. We warn one another against the disobedience that is our common destruction. We are gentle and we are severe with one another, for we know both God’s kindness and God’s severity. Why should we be afraid of one another, since both of us have only God to fear?” (p.82)

Bonhoeffer insists that courage to offer correction and reproof is a must:

“Reproof is unavoidable. God’s Word demands it when a brother falls into open sin. The practice of discipline in the congregation begins in the smallest circles. Where defection from God’s Word in doctrine or life imperils the family fellowship and with it the whole congregation, the word of admonition and rebuke must be ventured. Nothing can be more cruel than the tenderness that consigns another to his sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe rebuke that calls a brother back from the path of sin.” (p.83)

And because Bonhoeffer sees that church discipline sometimes calls for breaking of fellowship, he finally tackles the question of spiritual authority. He would have no time for the celebrity pastor or the conference bios that speak of all the achievements of man and rejects the idea that leadership should be founded on ‘worldly charm’ or the ‘brilliant attributes of a spiritual personality’.

Instead what he looks for ‘is a simple, faithful man, sound in faith and life, who rightly discharges his duties to the Church. His authority lies in the exercise of his ministry. In the man himself there is nothing to admire.’

Here are words well worth heeding:

“The Church does not need brilliant personalities but faithful servants of Jesus and the brethren. Not in the former but in the latter is the lack. The Church will place its confidence only in the simple servant of the Word of Jesus Christ because it knows that then it will be guided, not according to human wisdom and human conceit, but by the Word of the Good Shepherd.

The question of trust, which is so closely related to that of authority, is determined by the faithfulness with which a man serves Jesus Christ, never by the extraordinary talents which he possesses. Pastoral authority can be attained only by the servant of Jesus who seeks no power of his own, who himself is a brother among brothers submitted to the authority of the Word.” (p.85)

Amen.

 

 

 

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June 13, 2014

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Life Together: The day alone

Dietrich+Bonhoeffer 236x300 Life Together: The day alone Dietrich Bonhoeffer  This is the third in a series, taking an in-depth look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (Community, The day with others, Ministry, Confession & Communion).

After having looked at a day in community, Bonhoeffer turns to the individual and highlights two truths of the Christian faith:

1) “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community”

2) “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

The first statement recognises that God calls us as individuals, and it us alone who must respond to the call of Jesus and it us alone who will give account to God when we die. So far, so very protestant.

The second statement recognises that while we were called alone, we weren’t called to be alone. We were called into community so that in life, we would not be alone. So a healthy community has people who can be alone and people who can be together.

He then proceeds to extol the virtues of solitude and silence, just as there are times for singing and sharing there are times for thinking and listening.

“The Word comes not to the chatterer but to him who holds his tongue. The stillness of the temple is the sign of the holy presence of God in his Word.” (p.59)

Silence, then to Bonhoeffer, is the posture of listening. We’re not speaking because the Word still is, the Word is taking up residence in our hearts and we must listen. It is the discipline of staying longer than may at first be comfortable. In silence are our words sifted, strained and refined.

“But silence before the Word leads to right hearing and thus also to right speaking of the Word of God at the right time. Much that is unnecessary remains unsaid. But the essential and the helpful thing can be said in a few words.” (p.60)

Silence and solitude carry their own pitfalls, of course, but it remains true that it is a spiritual discipline to be sought after for three main purposes: Scripture meditation, prayer and intercession.

In common worship, Bonhoeffer advocated the reading of regular sections of Scripture; in personal meditation he counsels deep focus on a short verse or word, to go into ‘the unfathomable depths of a particular sentence and word’ and should be open to coming back to the same word, day after day if need be.

“In our meditation we ponder the chosen text on the strength of the promise that it has something utterly personal to say to us for this day and for our Christian life, that it is not only God’s Word for the Church, but also God’s word for us individually. We expose ourselves to the specific word until it addresses us personally.” (p.62)

Bonhoeffer singles out preachers for particular mention aware of the unique pressures they face:

“We do not ask what this text has to say to other people. For the preacher this means that he will not ask how he is going to preach or teach this text, but what it is saying quite directly to him.” (p.62)

We are challenged not to expect ‘fresh revelation’ every time, to be be prepared for  ‘spiritual dryness, apathy and aversion’ but not to be diverted or disappointed. We should not fall into the trap of thinking it is our divine right to have nothing but ‘elevating and fruitful experiences as if the discovery of our own inner poverty were quite below our dignity.’ Our call is to seek God, not happiness and that God is in the desert as much as He is in the oasis.

From meditation on scripture we move to personal prayer for ‘the clarification of our day, for preservation from sin, for growth in sanctification, for faithfulness and strength in our work’.

The age-old problem of wandering thoughts is calmly dealt with, with the sage advice to simply turn wherever our minds have led us to the next object of prayer and in so doing return again to prayer. Distraction is not something to blindly resist, but in a spiritual judo move, use your enemy’s strength against him.

From personal prayer we move to intercession and here there is one hard-edged diamond after another. Consider the following:

“A Christian fellowship lives & exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.” (p.65)

How does this happen?

“Intercession means no more than to bring our brother into the presence of God, to see him under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being and sinner in need of grace. Then everything in him that repels us falls away and we see him in all his destitution and need.” (p.66)

Bonhoeffer sees the responsibility for intercession on all members of a fellowship but especially on its leaders.

“For the pastor it is an indispensable duty and his whole ministry will depend on it. Who can really be faithful in great things if he has not learned to be faithful in the things of daily life?” (p.66-7)

This balance of aloneness with God and fellowship with others in the presence of God is rooted in the fact that we are a body. You are as much a member of the body of Christ when you are on your own as when you are with others. You do not start being a member when you join a meeting or stop being one when you go home. We are members of the body of Christ. It is who we are all the time. So the whole is strengthened by our time alone, just as the whole is strengthened by time together. A healthy fellowship relies on both.

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June 11, 2014

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Life Together – The day with others

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 300x179 Life Together   The day with others Dietrich Bonhoeffer This is the second in a series, taking an in-depth review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (Community, The Day Alone, Ministry, Confession & Communion).

After having considered the nature and purpose of the Christian community and the foundation on which it rests, Bonhoeffer begins to establish a rule of life. A pattern to be adopted by believers in community or simply by a family.

Bonhoeffer sees hope and victory in dawn, a sign that the night has been defeated, darkness gives way to light. He issues a passionate call to begin each day in Christian hope:

“At the threshold of the new day stands the Lord who made it. All the darkness and distraction of the dreams of night retreat before the clear light of Jesus Christ and his wakening Word. All unrest, all impurity, all care and anxiety flee before him. Therefore at the beginning of the day let all distraction and empty talk be silenced and let the first thought and the first word belong to him to whom our whole life belongs. ‘Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light’ (Eph 5:14)” (p.29)

The family or community are urged to begin the day at dawn for praise and thanks, reading of the Scriptures and prayer and finds plenty of encouragement in the scriptures in rising early to meet the day. Bonhoeffer’s rule isn’t rigid, ‘different fellowships will require different forms of worship’ and a family with children ‘needs a different devotion from that of a fellowship of ministers’ but says all should contain the same basic elements; Scripture, singing and prayer and then proceeds to look at each element.

He begins with a reflection on the place of the Psalms both as the basis for our worship and our prayers. We should pray the Psalms corporately and takes his cue from Oetinger who argued that the sweep of the Psalms ‘was concerned with nothing more nor less than the brief petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.’

“The more deeply we grow into the psalms and the more often we pray them as our own, the more simple and rich will our prayer become.” (p.35)

From the Psalms, Bonhoeffer moves to the daily reading of Scripture and argues that ‘brief verses cannot and should not take the place of reading the Scripture as a whole’ and comes against the idea of using Scripture as some blessed thought for the day. His prescription, I imagine, will jar with many modern families; “A Christian family fellowship should surely be able to read and listen to a chapter of the Old Testament and at least half of a chapter of the New Testament every morning and evening.” (p.36)

I’m unsure as to whether I should be encouraged or discouraged by the fact that Bonhoeffer laments the lack of knowledge of the Bible. It is at least a failing that has been around for 80 years now.

“If it is really true that it is hard for us, as adult Christians, to comprehend even a chapter of the Old Testament in sequence, then this can only fill us with profound shame; what kind of testimony is that to our knowledge of the Scriptures and all our previous reading of them? If we were familiar with the substance of what we read we should be able to follow a chapter without difficulty, especially if we have an open Bible in our hands and participate in the reading. But, of course, we must admit that the Scriptures are still largely unknown to us. Can the realisation of our fault, our ignorance of the Word of God, have any other consequence than that we should earnestly and faithfully retrieve what has been neglected?” (p.36-37)

After all, ‘one who will not learn to handle the Bible for himself is not an evangelical Christian.’

From Scripture we move to song, himself an accomplished musician, Bonhoeffer had been greatly impacted by the churches in Harlem, New York. Songs and hymns remained of vital importance. Bonhoeffer encourages the family to sing daily, to memorize hymns and encouraged separate times in the week for the community to sing and praise God together.

‘The more we sing, the more joy will we derive from it, but above all, the more devotion and discipline and joy we put into our singing, the richer will be the blessing that will come to the whole life of the fellowship from singing together.”

Singing, for Bonhoeffer, also became an expression of unity, not just within the fellowship but with the global church;

“All singing together that is right must serve to widen our spiritual horizon, make us see our little company as a member of the great Christian Church on earth, and help us willingly and gladly to join our singing, be it feeble or good, to the song of the Church.” (p.45)

From singing to prayer, regular, faithful, daily prayer in your own words forms with everyone taking turns to lead the fellowship in prayer to God.

From prayer Bonhoeffer moves to breakfast; ‘eternal bread before temporal bread’. He identifies in Scripture three kinds of table fellowship: daily fellowship at meals, the table fellowship of the Lords Supper and final table fellowship of the Kingdom of God (p.49). Meals become as important as prayer, we see them as the blessing of God.

“Christians, in their wholehearted joy in the good gifts of this physical life, acknowledge their Lord as the true giver of all good gifts; and beyond this, as the true Gift; the true Bread of Life itself; and finally, as the One who is calling them to the banquet of the Kingdom of God.” (p.50)

Meals should be festive and enjoyable, reminding us of rest in God, of fellowship, of blessing and learning the habits of rejoicing.

Only then are we ready to go to work, ‘prayer is entitled to its time. But the bulk of the day belongs to work.’ Yet Bonhoeffer sees the necessity of prayer in laying the foundation for a productive day.

“The prayer of the morning will determine the day.”

“The organization and distribution of our time will be better for having been rooted in prayer.”

“Our strength and energy for work increase when we have prayed to God to give us the strength we need for our daily work.”

Break from lunch, meet with the fellowship if possible. Reset your gaze and then at the end of the day meet again, give thanks, forgive and be reconciled where necessary and commit yourself to the Lord.

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June 10, 2014

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God hates visionary dreaming

Let these two quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenge your thinking about leadership in the church and your own attitude and expectations of church.

“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first the accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

And:

“If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.”

From Life Together p.16-17

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June 9, 2014

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Life Together: Community

life together 194x300 Life Together: Community Dietrich Bonhoeffer community This is the first in a series, taking an in-depth review of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic, Life Together (The Day with Others, The Day Alone, Ministry, Confession & Communion).

What is the church and what kind of corporate life should it have? These are important questions, especially in an age where style leads substance and effectiveness leads conviction. Into this, voices from the past remain important for us to listen to, to help us consider our theology and way of being the church in the present time.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer remains an important voice for a number of reasons – his story is compelling and continues to draw interest, his theology is both stark and ambiguous so that many people can find appeal in his words.

His book Life Together has, rightly, been hailed a classic and is full of riches to anyone thinking about the shape, purpose and mission of the church. Personally I consider it required reading.

In the first chapter, Bonhoeffer deals with ‘Community’ and reminds us that the church is a gathering in the world not set apart from it.

“The Christian…belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.” (p.7)

The church is a scattered people, cast like seeds to the wind but like seeds to grow wherever we land.

“God’s people must dwell in far countries among the unbelievers, but it will be the seed of the Kingdom of God in all the world.” (p.7)

Bonhoeffer dwells on the embodied nature of fellowship. Christ came in the body, we remember Christ through bread and wine and our physical presence with each other should be treated as a grace gift of God being reminded that many miss such presence – the sick, the prisoner, the missionary, the lonely. Bonhoeffer is also acutely aware of the time he was writing in – Finkenwalde was an underground seminary, the Nazis were tightening the noose on those connected with the Confessing Church. There were no promises of peace and Bonhoeffer saw this:

“It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed.” (p.10)

In the light of this threat and reality Bonhoeffer urges a thankfulness that is often missing from contemporary church life, gratefulness for the church itself.

“Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.” (p.10)

That would certainly be a refreshing attitude to encounter on Sunday mornings.

He then moves on the foundation of Christian community, Jesus Christ. Here Bonhoeffer’s appeal to evangelicals becomes clear.

“The Christian lives wholly by the truth of God’s Word in Jesus Christ. If somebody asks him, ‘Where is your salvation, your righteousness?’ he can never point to himself. He points to the Word of God in Jesus Christ, which assures him of salvation and righteousness.” (p.11)

But while it is the word alone which is the basis of the Christian life, we only hear that word through another person. Believer and unbeliever alike needs to hear the gospel. This for Bonhoeffer is the purpose of Christian community;

“They [the believers] meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.” (p.12)

This goes beyond the preacher, each believer has a duty and commitment to encourage their brothers and sisters in the truth of the gospel but before we get too eager to dispense ‘truth’ Bonhoeffer reminds us of how God brought truth to us.

“When God was merciful to us, we learned to be merciful with our brethren. When we received forgiveness instead of judgement, we, too, were made ready to forgive our brethren. What God did to us, we then owed to others.” (p.13)

We’re to grow in the love of God and the church is the primary place we exercise and grow in that love. That is a healthy reminder. As Bonhoeffer unpacks what love is like and how it is manifested in Christ, he deals with all sorts of unloving behaviour that is commonly seen in churches – grumbling, complaining and self-centredness and ensuring we do not exclude the weak or the poor.

Bonhoeffer calls the church to a unity formed on the basis of who we are in Jesus Christ, and he is solidly reformed on this, and then made manifest to one another through ‘loving one another’. We are the church only because of Jesus Christ, we live our life together under the Word of Jesus Christ and so it is only there that we find the teaching on what it is to be the church, to love as the church and the unity of the church.

“We are bound together by faith, not by experience” (p.26)

 

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May 27, 2014

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Interview: The Leadership Files

Some time ago I did an interview with Andy Peck for The Leadership Files radio programme on Premier Radio. I answer questions on books, running and church planting in Sweden.

Have a listen here

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May 26, 2014

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Inch wide, mile deep?

Bjärka Säby 2 300x200 Inch wide, mile deep? sweden christianity Recently Sweden made a surprise appearance, not in the Eurovision song contest but in First Things magazine. Matthew Milliner made a visit to an ecumenical community called Bjärka-Säby. In the midst of his visit he makes a surprising announcement;

Overwhelmed by it all, I announce that whereas American Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep, Swedish Christianity is an inch wide and a mile deep. Never have I seen ecumenical cooperation as I have here. I unfurl a grand analogy: Under secularism’s tectonic pressure, the continents of differing traditions are drifting closer together. As the landmasses merge, some jump to another side, while others remain. But the merging of continents is far more significant than isolated bounds, however athletically impressive. Personal conversions, despite the attention they can generate, are small change compared with the payoff of broader ecclesial union. And toward this goal, Sweden—thanks to the remarkable Bjärka-Säby—seems decades ahead.”

I’ve been mulling over this for weeks now and I’ve two main observations from the article because it is at odds with my observations on Swedish Christianity over the past few years. Although I confess, I have not visited Bjärka-Säby.

Firstly, I’ve been trying to understand what it was that made such an impression on Milliner.

The article is descriptive of place but actually contains little of substance beyond a convent and this retreat centre to support Milliner’s grand claims. Certainly the beauty of the place seems to have left its mark, as did the ecumenical spirit of the place with its Coptic icons & ceremonies, Lutheran liturgies and its cassocked Pentecostal minister. It even drew comparisons with fabled Mount Athos in Greece. Milliner also seems impressed that the leaders who he met didn’t fall out over the issue of Ulf Ekman’s conversion to Rome, although it puzzles me, somewhat, as to why he thinks it should.

Secondly, Milliner’s headline claim that Christianity here is an ‘inch wide and a mile deep’ seems off the mark. Milliner has unwisely taken one small slice of deep and concluded that it must be like that everywhere. If only that were true.

The Lutheran Church of Sweden is the most liberal of all churches and is practically indistinguishable from society in its values and proclamations. It is hemorrhaging members. One priest told me, his was one of the larger Church of Sweden congregations in Stockholm with around 80-100 regular attenders. Declining denominations merge to stem the losses only to continue to decline.

Milliner had it half right, it is inch wide.

Yet Evangelical Christianity in Sweden continues to look to America for it’s inspiration and advice. Pastors regularly make their pilgrimages west in search of the cure. Conferences are well attended when the latest big-name pastor from the States is flown in.

Ecumenical gatherings appear, as so often, to end up at the lowest common denominator and (from my casual observance at least) are usually blandly inoffensive and toothless. Church after church is looking for the fix to massive decline and as a result are blighted by pragmatism and unhindered by theology.

Whatever depth there is, is not widespread.

It is not all bad news. I am hearing testimonies of conversion or healing. I’ve met more and more pastors who, in their own words, have discovered a renewed hunger for theological depth, clarity and robustness. There is evidence of a growing commitment to church planting as the basis for mission. At one end of the spectrum there is a renewed interest in house churches and simple churches as a means of renewal and at the other end Hillsongs Stockholm is growing fast and gathers a crowd. There is reason to hope that it will both widen and deepen.

Yet, I think it remains reasonable to say that these signs are just that, signs and not the reality. Sadly, from everyone I’ve met and everything I’ve seen and heard, and it genuinely pains me to say this but when it comes to Swedish Christianity, I fear a more accurate description would be ‘inch wide and inch deep.’

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May 20, 2014

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Commentaries on the Gospel of John

At Grace Church we have just begun to read the fourth gospel together. We read it together, ask questions about the text and ask two basic questions (1) what is the text saying? (2) what does this mean for us/me?

Although I don’t preach through the text, I do prepare with the text. I do this for a number of reasons, firstly I want to learn and grow in my knowledge of the Word through the word. Secondly, to be able to guide well. We read together so we all earn to engage with the Bible, ask questions of it, learn from it but it’s entirely possible that we collectively fail to understand it together. Some preparation here helps. Thirdly, we hope and expect to get questions about it, so some understanding helps deal with the questions and challenges that arise from dealing with the text.

To that I need some tools to help me with my studies. I have a number of commentaries (plus single volume whole bible commentaries) and thought I’d share them.

[1] G. Beasley-Murray, John Commentaries on the Gospel of John gospel of john commentaries bible study , 2nd ed. Nashville  Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999.
[2] D. Carson, The Gospel according to John  Commentaries on the Gospel of John gospel of john commentaries bible study , 1. publ. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press [u.a.], 1991.
[3] C. G. Kruse, John: an introduction and commentary Commentaries on the Gospel of John gospel of john commentaries bible study , vol. 4. Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003.
[4] T. Longman, Luke–Acts Commentaries on the Gospel of John gospel of john commentaries bible study , Rev. ed. Grand Rapids  Mich.: Zondervan, 2007
[5] J. Marsh, The Gospel of Saint John. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.
[6] N. Richardson, John for Today: Reading the Fourth Gospel Commentaries on the Gospel of John gospel of john commentaries bible study , 1st ed. SCM Press, 2010.
[7] J. Ryle, John. Marshall Pickering, 1990.
[8] G. Sloyan, John Commentaries on the Gospel of John gospel of john commentaries bible study . Louisville  Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

What commentaries do you use and what should I get that I’m missing?

*The links take you to Amazon where I have an affiliate account*

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April 28, 2014

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Why meetup.com is a gift for church planters

meetup 300x168 Why meetup.com is a gift for church planters mission evangelism culture common good The Christian ghetto culture is a well-known phenomena and constant nuisance (or personal struggle) for leaders who want their churches to connect with the big world just outside their front door.

For years I’ve heard leaders moan about the culture of church, that sucks a new follower of Christ into church and leaves them with zero connection to people who don’t know Jesus.

I’ve also heard Christians who want to engage, want to take initiative but have no idea how to connect, how to find people and when they put on an event (invariably in their church building) few to none, show up.

What a joy, then, to discover meetup.com It is a simple idea, it is a directory of events. You have an interest and you create a group and then anyone interested in that same subject can come to your meetup and straight away you have someone new to talk to about something you both have already said you’re interested in. Genius.

It is  an absolute gift for church planters who arrive in a new city and know almost no-one. This makes it so easy to try things out until you have friends.

For example, this week in Stockholm there are 117 meetups happening from sport, coding stuff, just having a coffee somewhere, language learning, book and film clubs and everything else. Everything else that is except for anything about Christianity. Has anyone tried running an Alpha through meetup? If so, get in touch.

Obviously the bigger your town or city, the more likely this is to be useful to you, but it’s just been made so easy to find a group of people with whom you have at least one guaranteed point of connection, and whom you can be among to be friends, meet people and love and serve them, while doing something you enjoy. Evangelism not as an extra but as part of life. All part of trying to live missionally.

Honestly, why has no-one said anything? How did I miss it for so long?

 

 

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April 23, 2014

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Should you stop having prayer meetings?

What does prayer look like in your church? How often do people pray, how well attended are the prayer meetings and do you feel guilty even considering these questions? Perhaps you identify with John Stevens when he writes: “It  is one of the weaknesses of my kind of evangelicalism that we can so over-emphasise the importance of preaching […]

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April 22, 2014

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Cell Church

Not so long ago I had the privilege of listening to the pastor of a very large church from south-east Asia. The first session, as he recounted tales of persecution, faith, miracles and enormous courage captivated his audience. The reaction to the second session was different. It soon became clear that the subject was cell […]

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