Christian Today Digest – July 2014

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[Unless otherwise stated, articles in this magazine are transcriptions of material selected by the editor at Christian Today and were first published on www.Christiantoday.com over the past month.]

Contents

“God did a real number on me”

About four years ago, one of the few passersby who dropped into Butterfield’s enormous neo-Gothic barn of a church is St Augustine’s on a prime piece of real estate in Queen’s Gate, South Kensington, would have witnessed an extraordinary sight.

Hour after hour, standing at the altar, they would have seen an ex-offender with startling blue eyes, a shock of wavy brown hair and a face that has clearly “lived” a little, practising the complex rituals and liturgy of a 34-page High Mass that owes more to 20th-century Rome than his own Church of England, until he knew every step by heart.

Rev Paul Cowley was awarded an MBE in the latest honours, for services to ex-offenders. His story and that of the church he now leads are living witnesses to the power of faith to transform.

Now 58, at 15 he was expelled from school and after living in a squat entered a life of crime which landed him behind bars. When he came out he found salvation in the Army after seeing a poster offering a “life of adventure”. In 16 years he rose to Staff Sergeant, did three tours in Northern Ireland and one in the Falklands and fought on the Army boxing team. After leaving he became a fitness trainer and ended up running one of London’s top fitness clubs. “The Army absolutely saved my life,” he says. “It brought out leadership skills and self-discipline and gave me a family, clothes and fed me.”

He was persuaded to do an Alpha course at HTB in 1994 and his life was turned around. “I came to Christ,” he says. “God did a real number on me.” The change came half way through the course. “I remember thinking, if all this stuff is true, I can change. I can be the person I want to be, a man of character, strength and integrity, a good husband, a good father. I remember thinking, God, if you can do all that, I am up for it. I finished the course, and things started to change.” He became involved in running home groups, and then in ex-offender work after HTB staff heard his testimony and asked him to visit Dartmoor, which led to setting up Alpha for prisons. Eight in ten prisons now run the course.

He was ordained in 2002 after a three year degree course at Oakhill and in 2010 was appointed pastor of HTB Queen’s Gate, under the oversight of HTB vicar Nicky Gumbel.

His work at St Augustine’s, rechristened St Augustine’s Queen’s Gate, includes Alpha for Prisons, Caring for Ex-Offenders, Alpha for Forces, and the William Wilberforce Trust which takes in a counter-human trafficking unit, a homeless drop in, debt counselling and courses dealing with money, dept, depression, and recovery. There is a staff of 42 including 30 in the refurbished offices at the church itself.

St Augustine’s is now the only church in the fast-expanding HTB stable where the main service is an Anglican High Mass, clouds of incense included.

When Paul arrived at the church, the roof was leaking, the lights were not working and there was a an elderly congregation of about 13. He decided to respect their tradition and, perhaps unusually for a church plant, instead of asking them to embrace the evangelical style, he embraced theirs.

HTB paid for a total refurbishment. The pews went, the enormous vicarage was turned into social housing, the fabric was restored. The ornate gilded reredos, the high altar and the High Church luminescent feel of the building remain.

With the help of friends at the nearby Brompton Oratory, one of the country’s leading Catholic churches and now itself involved in HTB’s ex-offender ministry scheme, the intricate gorgeously coloured silk and lace vestments were dusted off and sorted in their antique drawers in the vestry.

Paul balked only at wearing these, in particular refusing to wear the ornate gold cope, and prefers the traditional Anglican cassock, surplice and stole. He also declined to celebrate Mass with his back to the congregation. He faces them, from a new table installed at the top of the nave.

But the liturgy is unchanged, and the congregation has grown nearly ten-fold, enhanced by a professional robed choir with members drawn from the Royal College of Music.The early morning family service has moved there from St Paul’s Onslow Square and there is now a Sunday afternoon worship service, with hundreds of people, in the evangelical style for which HTB is known. During the week, there are regular drop-ins for homeless people and those in need of debt, drug and other advice.

“Through the grace of God it has been extraordinary,” says Paul. And he’s only just begun.

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Domestic violence in the church: Pastors “poorly informed”, says Jim Wallis

The church needs to be having a conversation about domestic violence in its midst but at the moment that’s just not happening, says social justice veteran Jim Wallis.

Wallis was commenting in response to a survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors commissioned by his Sojourners network in partnership with IMA World Health.

The survey, conducted by LifeWay research, found that nearly three quarters of faith leaders (74 per cent) underestimate the level of sexual and domestic violence experienced within their congregations.

Of those who said they do speak about the topic, 72 per cent said they did so because they believed it was a problem in their local communities, compared to only a quarter who said they spoke out because they felt it was a problem in their congregations.

While research by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that one in three US women and one in four US men will experience violence at the hands of a partner, the Sojourner survey found that nearly two thirds of pastors (65 per cent) speak about the issue in their churches once a year or less.

“And when they do address the issue, they may be providing support that does more harm than good,” Sojourners said.

It was alarmed to find in the survey that 62 per cent of pastors said they had responded to sexual or domestic violence by providing couples or marriage counselling.

“This is considered a potentially dangerous or even potentially lethal response,” it said.

The network said churches were “currently falling short of their potential” but the survey also shed light on the extent to which American pastors feel ill-equipped to tackle domestic violence.

Only 56 per cent of pastors said they were adequately familiar with local resources specifically addressing sexual and domestic violence.

Eighty-one per cent of pastors said they would take action to reduce sexual and domestic violence if they had the resources and training to do so.

With so many ready to act, Sojourners' optimistic America’s pastors could be turned into “powerful advocates for prevention, intervention and healing”.

“This is a conversation the church needs to be having but isn’t,” said Sojourners’ president and founder Jim Wallis. “We cannot remain silent when our sisters and brothers live under the threat of violence in their homes and communities.”

Reverend Amy Gopp, Director of Member Relations and Pastoral Care at Church World Service, noted, “I hope this report will educate faith leaders about the importance of reaching out to domestic violence programs in their communities and creating strong partnerships so that survivors are served in the way they deserve.”

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Jeff Lucas with 5 reasons to be nice to your pastor

I know. I’m biased, because I’m a pastor, and given the choice between engaging with pleasant, encouraging, smiling souls, and those carping critics who make piranhas look like tame goldfish, I’d obviously choose the latter. But it’s worth thinking about why we should be nice to the women and men who lead us, for one simple reason: encouragement takes thought and strategy, and shouldn’t just happen because it just happens. Years ago Ian Dury (together with his Blockhead friends) sang about “Reasons to be cheerful”. Here are 5 reasons to be nice to your local pastor:

1. They frequently take the blame for God

It’s true: Christian leaders represent God, who is currently invisible, and, at times, seems unavailable, especially when things go horribly wrong in life. When people get angry with God, there’s no customer support line to call, and so they frequently take out their frustration on the person they most associate with God, which might be their vicar, pastor, leader or priest. Getting slapped on behalf of the Almighty is not a happy experience.

2. They are required to say some things that they’d prefer not to say

The Bible contains some awkward truths, and if your pastor is going to be faithful in preaching it, they’ll have to deal with some tricky passages on sensitive subjects like divorce, war, adultery, sexuality, and, brace yourself for the subject that tends to light the blue touch paper, money. When speaking on these, they are unlikely to please all of the people all of the time, which means they will take some heat. Cool them down with some kindness.

3. They are often the target for gossip

In some churches, Christians don’t gossip, they share. Under that guise of sharing, “Please pray for the pastor, he is really struggling right now”, we can give the impression that the pastor is struggling with faith and is now a fully paid up member of the humanist society, struggling with temptation, and has opened their own private harem, or is struggling with anger towards his congregation, and is now a serial killer whose modus operandi is striking during the after-church cup of tea while wearing clerical attire. Gossip destroys people. Don’t pass it on.

4. They don’t have a hotline to God

Some think that their pastors have a VIP pass to the courts of heaven, and begin each day with a happy little chat with God. They don’t. They too struggle with doubt, unanswered prayer, and when going through wilderness times in their faith, often have to appear more certain than they are, not because they are faking it, but because it is inappropriate for them to dump their own private struggles on their congregation every Sunday. If you sometimes feel that your prayer life is more AOL dialup than high speed wireless, know that they frequently feel the same.

5. They usually don’t have a cunning plan for world dominion

Okay, there are some wolves out there masquerading as shepherds. There are power hungry, authoritarian clerical control freaks who would be better leading at leading fascist regime than a local congregation. Spiritual abuse does happen, and it’s serious. But the vast majority of leaders are ordinary people (God only uses ordinary folk, nothing else is available), who are simply doing their best to respond to a vocational call to help people to discover Jesus.

So go ahead. Make their day, and help them out by being nice.

Jeff and his wife Kay will be hosting a tour of London and Israel this autumn. Find out more about joining them at www.toursforchristians.com/tours/israel/a-special-visit-to-london-israel-with-jeff-kay-lucas

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Would you give Jesus a Big Mac, fries and a Coke?

Rick Warren is a man who cares primarily about people’s souls but the Purpose Driven author has spent the last few years trying to get his congregation to care about their bodies too, and in his view, the two can’t be separated.

It’s called the Daniel Plan and the guiding philosophy behind it is that the 5 Fs of faith, fitness, focus, food and friends can all work together with great results for your body and health.

Just like his bestselling Purpose Driven book aims to refocus people in their faith life in 40 days, the Daniel Plan uses the same time frame and challenges Christians to reset their physical lifestyles.

It was launched back in 2011 and in the first year, some 15,000 members of Warren’s Saddleback congregation lost a collective 250,000 pounds.

The Daniel Plan also inspired the launch of new “active ministries” at Saddleback, including Walk & Worship bringing together exercise and friendship, and Daniel Plan study groups.

Suffice to say the accompanying book, “The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life” shot up bestselling lists following its publication last December.

It was co-written with Dr Mark Hyman, of The UltraWellness Center and medical contributor to Katie Couric’s TV show, “Katie”.

Speaking around the time of the book’s launch, Warren said that the Daniel Plan was “far more than a diet”.

“It is about living a healthier life based on biblical principles. You can’t love if you don’t have the energy to love. If you go home every night and lie on the couch because you’re exhausted from not eating right and your blood pressure is too high, well, how can you make a difference?” he said.

He’s also been upfront about his own need for the Daniel Plan as much as anybody else’s. He told Time in an interview that his thinking behind it was: “I’m going to get in shape. Does anybody in the church want to get in shape with me?”

Three years and a book down the line, the Daniel Plan is continuing to prove a hit with Christians serious about keeping themselves in the best shape for God.

Just last weekend, 3,000 people turned up to Saddleback for a Daniel Plan rally where Dr Hyman and others on the team took them through simple exercises they could do from their own seats.

And Dr Hyman was upfront about the faith connection and the value we may or may not be putting on our physical bodies.

“If Jesus came to dinner, what would you feed him?” he said. “Would you give him a Big Mac, fries and a Coke? Would you feed him all the junk that we feed ourselves and our guests when they come to dinner? Or would you eat real food?”

According to the LATimes, Warren has said he is still working on his own personal weight loss goal but has been able to downsize from roomy Hawaiian shirts to more snug-fitting black T-shirts.

“Is this something new? No,” he said. “For 2,000 years the church has been caring for the sick.”

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Can faith really affect your chances of getting a job?

A new study has found that indicating your religious beliefs on your CV could stop you from getting a job offer.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut sent out over 3,000 fake job applications, each demonstrating similar qualifications, experiences and skills - the only difference was affiliation with religious groups. Most of the CVs indicated affiliation with atheist, Jewish, pagan, Evangelical Christian, Catholic or Muslim groups - although some made reference to “Wallonian”, a made-up faith.

A “control” group of CVs made no mention of religion at all.

Prospective employers each received four job applications, and researchers then monitored which candidates received the most interest. The results showed that those who had not referenced any affiliation with a faith group were most likely to hear back.

Those with a religious affiliation were in fact found to be 26 per cent less likely to be contacted by a possible employer - with the exception of Jewish candidates, who were shown some “preferential treatment”.

“We hypothesised that overt statements of religious identity or beliefs on résumés would lead to fewer responses from employers,” the report reads.

“We found strong support for this hypothesis as résumés that mentioned any religious affiliation received 29 per cent fewer e-mails and 33 per cent fewer phone calls than the control group.”

Researchers believe that this indicates a “secularisation” trend in the US, which “implies the declining influence of religion in everyday life and its disappearance from the public sphere”.

Although the study showed that any religious affiliation affects the chances of employment, some faith groups encountered higher levels of discrimination than others.

“Muslims faced the most consistent and severe discrimination as they received 38 per cent fewer emails and 54 per cent fewer phone calls than the control group and ranked lowest in the employer preference scale,” the report notes.

The study was undertaken with employers in southern US states, and follows previous research which looked at work-based discrimination in New England.

A comparison of the two brings up some interesting theories. “Overall, while there is evidence of discrimination in New England, with the exception of Muslims, it is much less pronounced than it is in the South,” the report adds.

“This suggests, ironically, that religious discrimination in hiring is most prevalent in regions of the country where religion is most passionately practised.”

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From homelessness to hope in Swindon: “The person I was is completely different now”

A Swindon man who saw his life fall apart after losing his job three years ago is smiling again after being helped back into work by The Salvation Army.

Mark Wheatley, 44, went from one difficulty to another when he lost his job as a retail manager in 2011. Just a few months later, his relationship with his partner broke down and he ended up homeless.

It was a terrible time that knocked the confidence out of him, so much so that he wasn’t able to look people in the face.

The council put him in touch with The Salvation Army’s local Lifehouse where he quickly received a room and warm welcome.

But it wasn’t an easy adjustment for Mark and at first, he kept to his room, avoiding social interaction with others in the house.

“At first I was nervous and scared, and hardly spoke to anybody, I had very little confidence at all,” he says.

But Mark realised he couldn’t hide away forever and after a few weeks he signed up as a volunteer of the Recycles scheme to keep himself busy.

The scheme gives Lifehouse residents the opportunity to learn new skills by refurbishing old bikes and doing repairs for people in the community.

His supervisor, Rick Bartlett, recalls Mark didn’t really have any interest in repairing the bikes at first and was more interested in the retail side.

But slowly, they gave him bikes to build and repair and Mark discovered skills he didn’t know he had.

“It turned out he was a good mechanic and so we put him through the Cytech bicycle maintenance industry standard qualification,” said Rick.

“The changes I’ve seen in Mark - it’s almost like two different people. He came to us quite down on his luck and quite depressed.

“He is now confident and moving forward. It is a total change around.”

Mark agrees: “We joke about it now but the person I was two years ago is completely different now.”

And it’s not only Mark who has received a welcome boost.

“This job can be quite challenging but it is stories like this that makes it worthwhile,” says Rick.

The Salvation Army continued to support Mark through his NVQ Level 2 qualification in engineering and they now employ him as a relief cycle mechanic.

The days of being on the streets are well and truly behind Mark, as he now lives in a housing association flat in Swindon.

“The Salvation Army do so much work that people don’t know about. They help people who are in need get their confidence back by not only listening to them but also helping them in practical ways,” he says.

“I am really proud to wear my Salvation Army shirt home from work on the bus.”

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