Christian Today Digest – January 2018

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Contents

Christian Today Website Articles

Sometimes Christian Today also includes an article of interest, which is not necessarily a good-news item but rather one that has been included for readers to pray about.

Unless otherwise stated, articles in this magazine are transcriptions of material selected by the editor at Christian Today and were first published recently on www.christiantoday.com.

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New monasticism: Why are so many young people choosing to become temporary monks?

By Harry Farley

‘Spiritual but not religious’ has become a catchphrase for the interested-but-uncommitted as numerous studies document the relentless decline in church attendance in the UK.

But as religious affiliation continues its tailspin, with most of British adults professing ‘no religion’ for the first time last year, interest in spirituality is on the rise.

‘There is a deep spiritual yearning for substance and depth,’ says Rev Ian Mobsby of St Luke’s Camberwell in Peckham, London. ‘But people immediately assume the church has nothing to offer to that. That is why people call themselves spiritual and not religious.’

Mobsby finds himself at the heart of a trend developing across the Church of England, billed as ‘new monasticism’ – a rediscovery of an ancient religious practice.

‘People are asking, “What are the anchors to life? What is life about?”‘ he says. ‘New monasticism is trying to say to a world increasingly interested in spirituality that Christianity has a lot to say.’

This month another new monastic community for young Christians is opening in Leicester. The Community of the Tree of Life is aimed at young Christians aged between 20 and 35. Members must be single and they must live together for a year, taking vows to pray three times a day, eat together and work on voluntary projects.

‘I definitely think there is a renewal of prayer and religious life in the Church,’ says Rev Rachel Bennetts, Prior of The Community.

‘There is a real hunger for an authentic way of life, a deeper way of life. There is a cultural challenge in this which says “I do not want to do life the same as everyone else is.”‘

Leicester is far from an anomaly. As well as more established and well-known monastic groups such as The Iona Community off the coast of Scotland, The Community of the Tree of Life joins Mobsby’s own Wellspring Community in Peckham, The Community of St Margaret the Queen in the Diocese of Southwark, Moot in the City of London and St Frideswide’s religious community opening in Oxford among many more.

Perhaps the most prominent of all is the Community of St Anselm, based in Lambeth Palace and set up by the current Archbishop of Canterbury. Again aimed at young Christians between 20 and 35, participants live together at the Palace, committed to regular prayer and serving a local church or charity project.

‘I think generally there is an interest in exploring intensive forms of discipleship,’ Justin Welby’s chaplain, Isabelle Hamley, says. ‘You can see a similar desire in wider society in the interest in mindfulness. There is a very rich tradition of Christian practice that can meet some of the anxieties that people find in a fast-changing world.’

After joining Lambeth Palace a year ago this month, part of Hamley’s role is to oversee the programme alongside its new prior Revd Dr Rosalyn Murphy. Hamley says the combination of prayer and working with a local project is key.

‘It is not about escaping. It is about engaging and having the space to reflect on how we engage with the world and with one another.

‘Instead of people coming and making life vows, the majority are time limited,’ she says. ‘It aims to build habits of life that will last for the future and transform the way people live their secular lives afterwards.’

The relatively short-term nature of new monasticism, with most participants taking vows for one year rather than for life, is one way in which it differs from the traditional monasticism found in the earliest centuries of Christianity.

Rather than signing up to a ‘rule’, members sign to a ‘rhythm of life’ and while singleness is desired in most cases, married couples are allowed to join some projects, whereas ancient monasticism was strictly celibate.

But ‘new monasticism’ should not be seen as a soft alternative to the real thing, says Bennetts. ‘It is a big challenge and not a way for the faint hearted.’

Many new monastic groups, including The Community of St Anselm, ask members to either give up or restrict use of social media as part of living with ‘simplicity’. Others adopt certain dress codes for some or all of their activities.

‘We are not going to be living like the Desert Fathers but it is an opportunity to step away from some of the distractions,’ says Bennetts.

And Mobsby adds: ‘It is not about being a monk. It is about saying these traditions have something very deep for us to draw on.’

Mobsby, like Justin Welby, is one of a number of advocates of new monasticism to emerge from the Church of England’s evangelical wing. Broadly speaking, evangelicals tend to shun traditional and elaborate forms of religion in favour of an approach based more directly on the Bible. With this in mind one of the criticisms of new monasticism is that it is simply evangelicals discovering something that the Church has done for centuries and claiming it for themselves.

But Mobsby insists it is broader than just an evangelical movement. ‘It is renewing the breadth of the Church,’ he says. ‘It is made up of a balance of some people who are spiritual but not religious, plus Anglo-Catholics who are serious about faith, and charismatic evangelicals who are serious about teaching. The great thing about new monasticism is that it draws on the full breadth of these traditions.’

The sudden growth of new monastic communities is partly in response to an increasingly consumeristic and individual society.

‘I think people reach their mid 20s and think: “Is this all there is? “Is there a deeper way of living than this?”‘ says Bennetts.

‘Rather than just attending worship services people are now looking for a way of life. “How do I live in a culture that seems increasing uncertain where world powers seem to be working not toward progress but towards a sense of real worry?”‘,’ adds Mobsby.

But the growth in interest is not just a reaction against a consumeristic society, says Mobsby. It is also a reaction against the Church: ‘There is such big gap in where people are and where churches are.’

Most Anglican churches, particularly evangelical ones, were formed in a culture characterised by reason, thinking and believing, Mobsbey says. But now people are more focused on authenticity and emotion.

‘The Church is always 20 or 30 years behind culture generally. The Church is in a modernist culture which is all about thinking and believing.

‘People aren’t like that now. They want transformation and meaning. What I am seeing is a need for a much better balance between experience and reason.’

Hamley, the archbishop’s chaplain, admits there can be a lack of depth in regular churches. ‘People are dissatisfied with the depth they find in local church and want a place they can explore at a deeper level,’ she says. ‘There is a desire to find something deeper.’

She goes on: ‘If all you do is go once a week it is not as relational as it could or should. We all need more than once a week meetings. A lot of churches do lots of good things during the week with home groups etc., but new monasticism takes that community to a further level. I think often it gives a coherence to what you do.’

Bennetts agrees the movement is in part a reaction against a common way of doing church.

‘In church we get caught up in how much we have to do and achieve. There are anxieties in the church about how we must be growing about how we must reach people,’ she says.

Mobsby says this stress and pressure on clergy to reverse the decline in churchgoing – for instance through popular evangelistic courses – has created a consumeristic approach to church itself.

‘We have got a real focus on a course for six weeks and then making a commitment. But then we are expected to cope for the rest of our lives. Actually we’re on the discipleship course for the rest of our life.

‘How do we be in a consumer culture but not part of it?’ he asks. ‘I am worried that some expressions of church dumb down what Christianity is all about.’ He’s concerned about ‘business practices’ being absorbed into church leadership.

‘There is a danger of losing what church is supposed to be about. It is a radical reorientation of life.’

He is not the only one to raise concerns about a business-led approach to church and the need for growth. The Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, Martyn Percy, told bishops to stop acting as CEOs ‘chasing growth targets’ and said the increasingly ‘organisational and bureaucratic’ approach leaves clergy feeling ‘guilty’if they don’t succeed in getting more people into church.

In a speech in November he called for an end to ‘blue-sky’ thinking and warned that ‘every step that the Church takes down the road of managerialism and organisation is a step away from the public’.

But Welby’s chaplain, Hamley, denied there was a dichotomy between depth and growth.

‘Growth in numerical terms will only happen when you have growth in depth,’ she says. ‘That should feed into growth in numbers and it is also integral to what we see the Church as being about.

‘I think one of the mistakes we make is to think new monasticism is time out. It is not time out. It is engaging at a deeper level. The idea is to enable people to engage and reflect on how they are going to engage with a secular society in a more spiritual way when they come out.’

Analysts split the Church of England into ‘deniers’, who think its plight isn’t nearly as bad as people think, and ‘panickers’, who are convinced all-out evangelism is all that stands between it and extinction.

Perhaps – just perhaps – this new monasticism represents a way forward that shows evangelical activism can co-exist with real spirituality.

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Can Donald Trump – or anyone else – make a difference for Christians in the Middle East?

By Harry Farley

‘Men in suits.’

That is how an evangelical church leader in Cairo described the meeting of Donald Trump-supporting US evangelicals with Egyptian President Sisi in December.

‘That does not really excite me – those type of front-of-camera meetings. I am almost sure what the president told them word by word.

‘Those are the nice suits meetings that show again a nice language of support for the Christian community. “The government understands the problems”, they say. “The government is working to solve them one by one,” they will add.

‘This nice delegation has taken the fight out of the country and gone home and what stays in the country stays in the country.

‘The situation stays the same.’

‘Michael’s’ real name is hidden to protect his identity. That says a lot about ‘the situation’, as he describes it, in Egypt – a country which was shot up the rankings of the worst to be a Christian. Persecution charity Open Doors said ‘unprecedented’ violence fuelled by extremists fleeing Iraq and Syria means life for Christians in Egypt is precarious.

Christian persecution across the Middle East has been one of Donald Trump’s foreign policy themes, attracting enthusiastic support from his unofficial evangelical advisory board.

But Michael is sceptical. Egyptians are laughing at Trump, he says in an interview with Christian Today. And in general Egyptian society, including Christians, doesn’t care about what Trump says or does because however much his supporters talk about persecution, it makes little difference to those actually being persecuted.

In fact, with Trump’s decision to move the US Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, American support can actually be damaging for Christians in the Middle East.

It is not only Trump. Michael is convinced that foreign influence in general does little to help Egyptian Christians. Change, he says, must come from within.

‘Egyptian society is very fragile when it comes to the issues of Christians and the church,’ says Michael. ‘It has always been like that and it always will be like that unless change comes from the bottom.

‘I don’t think change will come from the top,’ he says. ‘I don’t think any body from abroad can help.

‘I doubt that any pressure from aboard, from the American administration or another government, will be able to really bring about a drastic change to the situation of the Egyptian Christian community. The pressure from abroad has actually proved to be more damaging to the Christian community than bringing good stuff.’

Describing everyday life for Egyptian Christians, who make up roughly half of Christians across the entire Middle East and 10 per cent of the country’s 95 million strong population, Michael says it is one of ‘fear and anxiety’.

There is a stark difference, he says, between cites such as Alexandria and Cairo where many are well-educated, and the rural villages where widespread illiteracy allows religious fanaticism to flourish.

President Sisi’s many warm words to his country’s Christian community, which has been riddled with attacks in the last 12 months, bring little comfort out in deserted villages.

‘The dominant powers are Muslim in those villages,’ he says. ‘Imams are looked at with great respect. They look at him as the ultimate source of truth. So when that source of truth says “Let’s burn that church down” or that there is a rumour of a Christian man running away with a Muslim girl, people listen.

‘They are easily ignited with anger and run to punish the Christian community. We have seen whole families forced to leave their villages because of a rumour that resulted into a state of disruption.

‘In the rural areas there is much more fertile soil for fanaticism and anti-Christian sentiment than in the cities like Cairo and Alexandria.’

He goes on: ‘When the local Christian community looks out and see that the dominant control is not really in the hands of President Sisi but in the local fanatical authorities you feel you do not have anywhere to go. You are in a situation where local authorities are expressing pressure daily.’

He adds: ‘Your children have to go to the local school, you go to the local hospital for treatment, buy your food in the local shop and in all those places the heavy hand of fanaticism is clearly evident and seen.’

Beneath this everyday discrimination that itself underpins the violent attacks such as the Easter day bombing that killed 49 people last year, are deep levels of misunderstanding about Christianity, says Michael.

When locals hear music and laughter in church they assume illicit sexual activity is taking place, not worship. They believe Christians defile God by claiming he had a son, and so are ‘infidels’ – those with a bad faith.

Before there will be any reduction of the number of attacks or change in the everyday discrimination Christians in Egypt suffer, there must be a shift in these grassroots beliefs about Christianity, says Michael. And that is something on which US evangelicals or any other foreign power can have little influence.

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Open Doors 2018 World Watch List: Christians in Egypt and Turkey targeted in ‘unprecedented’ spike in persecution

By Harry Farley

Christians in Egypt experienced an unprecedented spike in persecution last year, a watchdog’s annual report claims, with more than 200 people driven from their homes and 128 killed.

Hard-line Islamist extremists, pushed out of Syria and Iraq, have fled to Turkey and Egypt bringing a sharp rise in violence and aggression towards Christians there.

Open Doors is a Christian persecution charity and produces its World Watch List each year which documents levels of oppression around the world and ranks the worst 50 countries to be a Christian. Each country is given ‘persecution points’ measuring factors such as open violence but also more subtle indicators such as restrictions of private and family life, the freedom to worship and change religion openly and harassment in their jobs and local communities.

Both Egypt and Turkey shot up the list in the last year with Open Doors pointing to ‘unprecedented levels of persecution and suppression’ in both countries.

‘Michael Jones’, whose real name is hidden to protect his identity, is an evangelical church leader in Egypt’s capital, Cairo, and told Christian Today 2017 was ‘one of the most difficult years when it comes to the number of deadly attacks that have hit Christians in Egypt’.

He said the rise in violence, which saw 49 people killed in two church bombings at Easter and another 29 in a bus attack while travelling to a monastery in Upper Egypt, was underpinned by everyday discrimination against Christians.

He said Christians are denied top jobs in politics and teachers freely ignore or isolate Christian pupils in schools. The most marked difference came in the rural villages, Michael said, where the local imam was often seen as the sole voice of truth and authority.

‘When the local Christian community looks out and see that the dominant control is not really in the hands of President Sisi but in the local fanatical authorities you feel you do not have anywhere to go. You are in a situation where local authorities are expressing pressure,’ he told Christian Today.

‘Your children have to go to the local school, you have to go to the local hospital, buy your food in the local shop and in all those places the heavy hand of fanaticism is present.’

You can read Christian Today’s full interview with Michael on our website here.

Open Doors UK’s CEO Lisa Pearce said: ‘Christians in Egypt face a barrage of discrimination and intimidation yet they refuse to give up their faith.

‘In Egypt, as in many other Middle Eastern countries, your religion is stated on your identity card. This makes discrimination and persecution easy – you are overlooked for jobs, planning permits are hard to obtain and you are a target when you go to church.’

Elsewhere Nepal and India have also seen a sharp rise in persecution, the report says, pointing to the ‘growing influence of Hindu extremists in a surge of religious nationalism’ in both countries.

Last year 23,793 Christians in India alone were physically or mentally abused – more than the numbers abused in all the other countries on the list put together – and Open Doors accused the government of turning ‘a blind eye to those persecuting Christians’.

While North Korea still ranked as the worse country in the world to be a Christian, as it has for several years, the trend across the world is of worsening abuse aimed at Christians and Afghanistan is now a close second to the pariah state.

The report suggests South East Asia will be the ‘next emerging persecution hotbed’ with Islamic extremism fuelling a steady rise of persecution in Malaysia, the Maldives and the Philippines.

In Central Asia any non-state endorsed religious group faces a ‘crackdown’, the report says, and Christians are targeted with ‘harsh penalties and brutal intimidation by the security services’.

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Most Americans don’t trust Trump ‘at all’ – but most Christians still pray for him

By Joseph Hartropp

One year into the Trump presidency, a new poll has surveyed US adults on their perspective on the controversial administration. Most Americans do not trust the president ‘at all’, but while Trump has frequently divided US Christians, most from all denominations still pray for him.

The study by Barna, released this week, recaps some of the major moments from the Trump presidency’s first year, including the controversy over his inauguration crowd size, the spectre of ‘fake news’ and allegations of sexual assault.

There have been several spats within the American church regarding Trump in the past 18 months; he won 80 per cent of the votes of white evangelicals in the 2016 election, but attracted derision, disapproval and protests from many other believers. As Barna notes, significant attention surrounded an image of evangelical leaders laying their hands on Trump in prayer, prompting Barna’s question: ‘How many citizens are privately praying for the president?’

A minority of Americans (37 per cent) say they pray for Trump, and among those in non-Christian religions, just 18 per cent do. Barna adds: ‘Despite their high levels of disapproval and low levels of trust in Trump, black Americans are almost as likely as white Americans to pray for him (41 per cent and 44 per cent, respectively).’

However, among ‘practising’ Christian groups, intercessory support is far more widespread (69 per cent). Perhaps unsurprisingly, evangelicals are the most supportive: 88 per cent pray for the president, as do 76 per cent of non-mainline practising Christians, 65 per cent of practising Catholics and 59 per cent of mainline practising Christians.

Some partisan leanings remain: 82 per cent of Republican practising Christians pray for Trump, compared with 53 per cent of Democrat practising Christians. In general Republicans are twice as likely to pray for Trump than Democrats (60 per cent against 27 per cent).

Amongst those described as ‘notional’ Christians, just 35 per cent pray for the president, less than the national average.

Barna’s study included several other findings. According to a mid-2017 poll, most Americans (56 per cent) do not trust Trump ‘at all’, and among Trump voters only 51 per cent ‘definitely’ trust him. Almost half (49 per cent) of Americans did not support Trump’s travel ban – the executive order blocking the immigration of individuals from several majority-Muslim countries; 36 per cent did support it.

Many Americans (31 per cent) also believe that ‘fake news’ has more to do with misrepresentation and exaggeration on social media than deliberate deception on the part of media organisations, who are frequently a target of Trump’s. However, evangelicals were the most opinionated on the issue, with 51 per cent saying, like 46 per cent of Republicans, that ‘mainstream liberal media’ is to blame for ‘fake news’.

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Jehovah’s Witnesses: 3 things I learned from these eager evangelists

By Joseph Hartropp

I had a religious experience this week.

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t blinding light or a desert epiphany that stirred me, but the doorbell. Yes, I was accosted by a pair of Jehovah’s witnesses.

And actually, it was quite nice.

They represent a religion separate from Christianity, but that doesn’t mean they’ve got nothing to teach Christians. Here are three things I learned from our encounter.

1. These people are passionate

Perhaps what JW’s are most famed for is their forthright evangelism. In 2016, the group reported a global average of 8.13 million ‘publishers’ – the name given to the group’s active preachers, and it claims to be growing by 1.8 per cent every year. You can see them and their Watchtower stalls seemingly anywhere in the world. In this case, they weren’t waiting on the high street but had come to my very front door, asking me if I believed in God, what I thought about the Bible, the questions and answers I had about existence.

From my experience, it’s the kind of eagerness that’s likely to thoroughly annoy most Brits, especially strangers, who’d rather be left to themselves than quizzed on the meaning of life. ‘God-botherers’, ‘Bible-bashers’... people who like to share their faith don’t generally get a great reputation. Evangelism can come across as arrogant, aggressive, and runs the danger of seeing people as targets and numbers, not people with stories to be heard but just ‘sinners’ who you need to ‘save’ by saying the right stuff.

But I was a little challenged by the gentlemen who came to my door: I too believe in ‘good news’ for the whole world but do little about it, in practice. I don’t believe door-stepping my neighbourhood would be effective, so I’m not going to do it. But do I really just mean it would make me uncomfortable? That more than anything else, I want to be liked? Perhaps I’m backsliding: I have not the fervency and godly passion to get me out of the door, I lack the energy to want to go and save the world.

You can reject the JW approach (I’ll take real relationships over random-encounters) but still be challenged. In an increasingly individualist world, desperate to trouble no one, these believers are really getting out there.

2. Encounter is powerful

Secondly, we actually just had a nice encounter at the doorstep, which is not all that common. My neighbours (and family) generally keep themselves to themselves. There are no street parties, alas. But though ringing doorbells to spread pamphlets is to my mind both annoying and ineffective, I was actually glad of the interruption in the day. We had something in common: belief in God, an interest in the Bible, and some crucial differences too.

It should be stressed, though not always discernible, JWs are not orthodox Christians since they reject the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. They teach that Jesus was created by God, not pre-existent with God as Christians believe. The Holy Spirit, rather than being a person of the Godhead, is more like God’s ‘applied force’. The focus is on God himself, named as ‘Jehovah’, a representation of the Tetragrammaton, God’s Hebrew name given in the Old Testament (usually translated as Yahweh).

But even if just as human beings, we were sharing, talking about things that matter. How often do you probe the problem of suffering with your neighbour? So much of my life seems to be online now, with physical/social interactions becoming rarer through the ever-present, but ever-distancing, means of social media. Real people talking to each other, wondering ‘so what do you believe?’ is old fashioned, and quite refreshing for it.

3. The Bible is not the answer

I have to say though, I noticed one other key difference between our faiths. The man engaging me was confident about the power of the Bible to answer all our human questions. I was told to head to www.JW.org and see my puzzles answered with references to the Bible. As that website emphasises, the Bible is God’s inspired guidebook for human life.

In fact, this gentleman ventured, even if God didn’t exist, wouldn’t we all have better lives if we followed the moral teaching of the Bible? I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Well, if you got past the fact that God isn’t real so it’s all meaningless, yeah...’

As is often said, Christians don’t (or shouldn’t!) worship the ‘Father, Son and Holy Scripture’. The Bible is God’s word but it points beyond itself to God. And Jesus chastised the Jewish leaders of his day: ‘You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (John 5:39–40).

The Bible frequently doesn’t make sense to me, but I do believe that Jesus, the God who became man, ultimately makes sense of life – not in the sense of answering all its questions but in giving it order, meaning, hope. People need God, not a manual. I don’t see Scripture as ‘Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth’: its more a complex library of human words, albeit through which God has spoken and continues to challenge the Church today. It shouldn’t be ignored – but if the God it points to isn’t real, then its message is sad and untruthful, not inspiring.

At least, that’s my opinion. JWs would say otherwise, and it’s good that we live in a society where we’re free to talk about that. I respect their commitment to their cause, and I’m glad too that they bothered to knock on my door, since we’re too often so far from the people with whom we disagree. Thank God for them.

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