Not a knee jerk reaction

Our generation is the generation of the knee jerk reaction.  If a previous generation did something we now find abhorrent we knee jerk react against it.  We don’t forgive we condemn.  We don’t show grace we go to the opposite extreme so there is no way anyone could accuse us of thinking or acting like that!

As I prepared for Zechariah 1-2 last week I was struck by the difference in the reaction of the people of Zechariah’s day in Zechariah 1v1-6.  Zechariah, as God’s prophet, confronts God’s people with a need to return, calling them not to be like their ancestors who sinned and ignored God’s warnings.  That generation listened and responded not by condemnation of their ancestors, not by knee jerk, but by repentance.  They see their ancestors failings and repent of them, why?  Because they recognise the echo of their own hearts in their ancestors actions.

They know that they are not more enlightened than the previous generations.  They haven’t bought into the mythical idea of social progress – that everything is always getting better.  They know that their hearts are no different, that they are prone to the same mistakes and sins and so they don’t condemn and knee jerk, they hear and repent.

I was struck by how that speaks so powerfully to our own day.  Our society is quick to judge and condemn actions of previous generations, and some of those actions do need condemning – sometimes in the church we’ve been too slow to condemn sin.  But we fall short.  We stop there.  Or alternately we knee jerk and go to the opposite extreme.  But God calls us to see the need for us to stop, to hear his word, to recognise the echo of our own hearts and sin in the action of previous generations.  I am, we are, no different.

dusty-bibleIn a society that can only condemn or react by going to an opposite extreme we must stand out and be different.  We see and call out sin for what it is – not as viewed by culture but as God reveals it.  We mourn and repent of the sins of previous generations, but not in a smug way that suggests we’re any better, but recognising that it reveals our ow hearts, our tendency to be blinded by our cultural moment to bigger gospel issues.  And we apply the beautiful gospel of freedom and forgiveness and transformation.  In the bleak barren darkness of a society that has no grace or forgiveness to offer how brightly the churches should shine as we hold out and live out the gospel not of the knee jerk but of sin identified, mourned, repented of, and turned from.

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The Gospel v Personality tests

I read yet another book on personality types last week, it was underwhelming, derivative and seemed to be more about learning how to manipulate others rather than building good teams that work well together.  As you can tell I wasn’t big fan.

But what struck me is that so often we buy into this stuff.  We read it, we’re trained on it at work and we have a ready made excuse not to change.  We’ve fallen into the same trap with being an introvert it’s the ultimate trump card that people use to justify not putting any effort in to relationships or welcoming new people.

The gospel by contrast calls us to change.  It doesn’t say recognise your personality and then you know your limits.  Or recognise your persaonlity type and then only serve in areas that are comfortable.  I wonder if this is a danger in the way we talk about gifting in the church. We only want to serve where we’re gifted.  But the gospel transforms, it calls us to change, to love others deeply, to pour ourselves out in service of others rather than manipulate others.

As ever the gospel calls us to take what is good and fight what is sinful.  A personality test may tell you something about your natural tendencies, some of which is helpful to know and some of which reveal sinful habits to be repented of and changed.  A church is a community committed to applying the gospel to one another to grow to be like Christ, we mustn’t settle for any less.

We’re in denial about a gospel issue

The Christian world likes to contend that it’s distinct from the world.  But we’re not really that different are we?  The same trends that dominate the secular culture seem to dominate ours, though with some lag (especially if you live in Lancashire).  Some of that is to be expected, after all sin is common to all, and in the church we should be fighting it, but often seem to settle for masking it or covering it up. Sometimes, because we’re a bit myopic, we struggle to see sin that our own culture makes normal.  But we’re also prone to the same trends; craving celebrity, wanting to be entertained, individualism, liquid community that dissolves at the first sign of conflict, and so on.

But perhaps one of the most dangerous is that we are as prone to following the latest trend as anyone else.  That is especially true in terms of wanting to be on trend with ministry.  When I first came into ministry everything was about church planting.  Every conference seemed to be about it, everyone seemed to be doing it, and it was a good thing, by and large.  Though I do think looking back it needed nuancing and challenging.

Then a few years ago everything was all about cities.  Reaching and planting in cities was the subject of conferences because people were moving to cities and so cities were the way to reach the suburbs and so on.  No-one really stood up and challenged that.  How has that played out?  It has played out in a drain to cities and a loss to the average towns and rural areas.  It hasn’t even benefitted every area in the city equally, every city seems to have postcodes within which church planting happens and those where it doesn’t.

Then we seem to have had a trend where it’s cool to plant or think about ministry in tough areas, housing estates, and schemes.  And that is much needed, we need to reach out to millions of people who have not heard the gospel.  Please don’t mishear me, I’m not saying this isn’t needed, I work in one such area and meet with others who do, and it is needed.

What’s the next trend, well, it looks like it may be rural areas or average towns, I’ll guess we’ll see in what is published and conference speakers address in the next couple of years.

But here’s my point, here’s my problem.  The problem with trends is that there is a limited lifespan to the time and energy people give them.  Cities do need reaching.  Churches do need planting.  Estates desperately need the gospel.  As do rural areas and average towns.  All of those need all of that all of the time.  The people in those areas all face eternity, many have never heard the gospel and they can’t wait for the next trend.  They need faithful churches holding out the gospel in their midst, doing good, engaging with them, serving them, preaching to them now.

I also wonder if following the trends means we are constantly impoverishing one area in order to serve another.  The young, keen, determined, gospel sacrificing go where the emphasis is, what the conferences and training are preparing them for.

We need a better gospel vision that isn’t trend based.  That is based on need, eternal concerns, not fashionable trends.  We need to stop and examine our cultural bias and ask God to open our eyes to them.  Why?  Because the eternal destiny of thousands, millions, depends upon it.

What are you looking for when you move?

It was brought to my attention yesterday that Doncaster has come second in the annual worst places to live survey that newspapers love to quote.  Here’s a quote from the survey:  “Ahh Donny, famed for not much else other than being the birthplace of Thomas Crapper, the bloke who invented the flushing toilet. According to our contributors, this skidmark of a town seems to be already half way around the U-bend.”

Leaving aside all of the inaccuracies in the way the survey is done, asking people to vote for the place they live to be the worst town inevitably leads to a certain skew to the comments.  And the fact that whole towns are lumped together rather than seen as their individual parts, areas, suburbs or villages.  I always find those kinds of surveys fascinating for what they reveal about peoples attitudes.  I also can’t help but laugh about how other towns and cities (yes Sheffield I’m looking at you) newspapers seem to delight in kicking a town when it’s down.  As if somehow crowing about someone else struggle makes your problems seem better by comparison.

But the other interesting thing is how we react to such surveys.  Would you move with your family to somewhere on the worst places to live list?  What comes across in the comments is the sheer hopelessness of those who filled in the survey.  Doncaster has got some huge problems.  Problems that won’t be solved by surveys, or even regeneration proposals, or even a better night clubbing seen, better pubs and a clear up of all the spice addicts from the streets.

The only answer to Doncaster’s problems is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  But there are so many who do not have opportunity to hear.  So many who don’t have the opportunity to see the light in the darkness.  What’s your reaction to such a survey?  Would you be prepared to move to bring the light of the gospel?