Christian Today Digest – November 2014

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Christian Today Website Articles

To add to your further enjoyment of these articles, we thought a short description of how the website is organised would be of interest.

The Christian Today website has what we call tabs which are really just headings. It’s a way of categorising the articles. Here are the headings, which they use:

UK; World; Church; Mission; Ministries; Society; Life; Entertainment; Comment.

Torch will now include these categories at the beginning of each of the articles.

We have observed that sometimes CT include an article of interest, which is not necessarily a good-news item but rather the reverse and which has been included for readers to pray about. We hope therefore that including the headings or categories will enable Torch readers to also discern and pray.

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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 recently.

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Bigger Sunday schools aren’t the way to keep more children in church ... so what is?

From “Church” section

Trying to build a bigger Sunday school work won’t revive dying congregations, according to Scripture Union’s director of ministry development.

Alan Charter said churches should concentrate on developing whole-church discipleship which includes children in the life of a congregation rather than separating them out.

He spoke to Christian Today recent figures showed a sharp decline in religious affiliation in Britain. During the last five decades, the number of people describing themselves as having no religion has gone from three per cent of the population to nearly half. Historic denominations are showing sharp falls, with congregations propped up by immigrants from countries with higher levels of churchgoing.

Prof David Voas, co-director of British Religion in Numbers, told Christian Today that “churches do need to find a way to keep their young people if they are going to survive”.

However, Charter warned against trying to replicate the success of the Sunday School movement, though he said that its origins in trying to meet societal needs as well as spiritual provided important lessons: “At one level the answer is simple: it’s about helping churches grow in confidence. How can we help churches connect with the needs of their communities in Spirit-led entrepreneurialism?”

He urged a shift away from a “dry-cleaning” approach to children’s ministry in which the task of their spiritual formation was outsourced to professionals in the same way that other services were bought. “That’s an abdication of responsibility,” he said.

Charter called for a “shift towards a stronger ‘faith at home’ approach” which reflected a deeper historic pattern from which the Sunday School phenomenon had moved away. He said the issue was “how the whole church could own the agenda of seeing faith formed in the next generation”.

He said that helping churches in nurturing family faith, letting children participate in church life and creating opportunities for real encounters with Jesus was crucial. Particularly important was the ability for children and young people to form peer communities: “They need their own sub-culture,” he said.

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Unchurched America: They pray, own Bibles and are “spiritual” but nearly half still see no value in attending church

From “Church” section

New research by the Barna group paints an interesting picture of those who are aware of the church and even think positively of the Christian faith, but who, for whatever reason, feel that actively being a part of church is not for them.

“Churchless” is the title of Barna’s latest research into understanding today’s unchurched and how to connect with them.

The research reveals that the number of churchless Americans has risen sharply since the early 1990s, when only around two out of 10 adults were churchless.

That figure rose to three in 10 in the early 2000s and today now stands at nearly half the adult population (49 per cent).

Those who do not currently have never attended church make up 10 per cent of the population but a far higher figure is the de-churched - those who were once active in church but are no longer - who make up exactly a third of American adults.

Eight per cent of the population are “minimally churched” - they attend church “infrequently and unpredictably”.

“Not too many years ago, church attendance and basic Bible literacy were the cultural norm. Being a Christian didn’t feel like swimming against the cultural current. But now?” said Barna.

“Churchless confirms that the world has, indeed, altered in significant ways during the last few decades. It’s not just your imagination.”

In total, there are around 156 million adults and children in the US who are churchless, with more than half of those born between 1984 and 2002 being unchurched, compared to just a third of those born before 1946.

And Barna warns that much of what is reported as “church growth” is actually little more than “transfer growth”, where people just change from one church to another, and not from non-Christian to Christ-follower.

“If churches hope to grow by discipling new believers, we must improve our ability to attract those who are intentionally avoiding a connection with the church,” said Barna.

The younger the person is, the more likely it is they have never been to church and are “post-Christian” - lack any Christian identity, belief and practice.

But the door hasn’t been completely shut, with two in three unchurched Americans describing themselves as spiritual, and six in ten churchless adults saying they prayed in the last week.

“The truth is, most of them are already looking for a connection with God,” Barna said.

Three-quarters of unchurched Americans say they own a Bible and two-thirds said they tried to grow spiritually in the past month by talking about faith with friends and family, or by watching religious TV programming.

The research reveals the scale of the challenge facing the church, as 99 per cent of the unchurched said they were aware of Christianity and over two-thirds (69 per cent) said they had a favourable view of the faith. And yet nearly half also said they see no value in personally attending church.

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Bethany Hamilton on the shark attack she survived: “Fear of losing surfing was greater than losing my arm”

From “Life” section

Bethany Hamilton, the pro-surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack at the age of 13, had some words of encouragement for Christian girls on Saturday.

She was one of the guest speakers at the Anchored in Love day conference at Maranatha Chapel in San Diego, and spoke about where she draws her strength for living from.

“I believe God’s gift for us of forgiveness and salvation is something that is so consistent and perfect, and it’s all that we really need and no matter where we are at in life, we can cling to that and know that God accepts us as we are,” she said.

She also spoke about the life-changing shark attack she survived in 2003 and how it drove her to re-learn surfing without her left arm.

“For me, my fear of losing surfing was greater than losing my arm,” she admitted. “I could live life without my arm but surfing was a whole other story and I think God gave me this passion [for surfing] for a reason and it was part of his plan.”

Rather than being hindered by the loss of one arm, Hamilton has thrived in surfing and earlier this year won the Surf ’n’ Sea Pipeline Women’s Pro.

“You can kind of be your own artist on waves and ... I’m kind of an adrenalin junkie,” she shared.

“As hard as surfing is with one arm it’s also doable and I just needed ‘possible’,” she added.

Hamilton is a committed Christian and her story was turned into the movie, Soul Surfer, in 2011 starring Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt and AnnaSophia Robb, with Carrie Underwood playing a minor role.

While she has had so much success at such a young age, Hamilton credited her faith with keeping her grounded.

“I have good and bad days, and I have my struggles just like you do, and I need to keep my hope and trust in the same gift that’s available for all of us,” she said.

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Ten quick responses to atheist claims

From “Church” section

You don’t have to read hundreds of books before you can discuss your faith with an atheist. Sometimes claims and questions that are just short soundbites can be answered just as quickly. At the London Evangelists’ Conference yesterday, Professor John Lennox offered some quick responses to some common claims from atheists.

1) You don’t believe in Zeus, Thor and all the other gods. I just go one god more than you, and reject the Christian God.

The problem with this idea is that “gods” such as Zeus and Thor are not comparable with the biblical understanding of God.

“There is a vast distinction between all of the Ancient near eastern gods and the God of the Bible,” said Prof Lennox. “They are products of the primeval mass and energy of the universe. The God of the Bible created the heavens and the earth.”

2) Science has explained everything, and it doesn’t include God.

Science cannot answer certain kinds of questions, such as “what is ethical?” and “what is beautiful?” Even when it comes to questions about the natural world, which science does explore and can sometimes answer, there are different types of explanations for different things.

“God no more competes with science as an explanation of the universe than Henry Ford competes with the law of internal combustion as an explanation of the motor car,” says Prof Lennox.

3) Science is opposed to God.

There are certain conceptions of a “god” that might be opposed to science, but not the Christian God. There might be certain kinds of “gods” that are invented to explain things we don’t understand, but they’re not Christian.

“If we’re being offered a choice between science and god ... it is not a biblical concept of god,” said Prof Lennox. “The biblical God is not a god of the gaps, but a God of the whole show. The bits we do understand [through science] and the bits we don’t.

“Among many leading thinkers, their idea of god is thoroughly pagan. If you define god to be a god of the gaps, then you have got to offer a choice between science and god.”

4) You can’t prove that there is a God.

This kind of statement ignores that there are different kinds of “proof”.

“Can you prove that there is a God?” asked Prof Lennox. “In the mathematical sense no, but proving anything is very difficult. The word proof has two meanings. There’s the rigorous meaning in maths that is very difficult to do and rare. But then there’s the other meaning - beyond reasonable doubt”.

That’s the kind of “proof” we can present: arguments to bring someone beyond reasonable doubt. For example, rational arguments such as those from philosophers Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, the personal experience of Christians, and the witness of the gospel accounts in the Bible.

5) Faith is believing without any evidence.

Christian belief has never been about having no evidence: the gospels were written to provide evidence, as the beginning of Luke’s attests. The end of John’s gospel says, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”

But believing without evidence is a common notion of “faith” at present. “This definition is in the dictionary and believed by many,” said Prof Lennox. “So, when we talk about faith in Christ, they think that’s because there’s no evidence. [John’s gospel shows that] Christianity is an evidence-based faith.”

6) Faith is a delusion. I’d no more believe in God than I would in the Easter Bunny, Father Christmas or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

These ideas have been made famous by people such as Prof Richard Dawkins. The only thing they are good for is mockery.

“Statements by scientists are not always statements of science,” said Prof Lennox. “Stephen Hawking said, ‘religion is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark’. I said, ‘atheism is a fairy story for people afraid of the light’.

“Neither of those statements proves anything at all. They’re all reversible. What lies behind all these delusion claims is the Freudian idea of wish fulfilment [that we believe what we hope to be true.] This works brilliantly providing there is no god. But if there is a god, then atheism is wish fulfilment.”

7) Christianity claims to be true, but there loads of denominations and they all disagree with each other, so it must be false.

Why does the existence of denominations imply Christianity is false? It might imply that Christians have very different personalities and cultures - or even that Christians aren’t good at getting on with each other - but not that Christianity isn’t true.

“There are all kinds of different kinds of teams in football, but they all play football,” said Prof Lennox.

8) The Bible is immoral.

If you want to question the morality of the Bible, what basis does that morality have? There can be a serious contradiction within atheist criticisms. Dawkins wrote: “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

If this is true, then why does he question the morality of anything? “Dawkins says faith is evil,” said Prof Lennox. “But at the same time he abolishes the categories of good and evil. That doesn’t make sense.”

9) Surely you don’t take the Bible literally?

Some atheists (and a few Christians) have a very black and white idea of how to interpret the Bible. You either have to take it “literally” or chuck it away, they think. That ignores the reality of language and how it reflects truth.

“Jesus said ‘I’m the door’,” said Prof Lennox. “Is Jesus a door like a door over there? No. He is not a literal door, but he is a real door into a real experience of God. Metaphor stands for reality. The word ‘literal’ is useless.”

10) What is the evidence for God?

You can debate the existence of God until the cows come home. It can be very interesting, especially when you go into the detail and explore the subject in depth. But for an atheist, they might be missing the point or avoiding the real issue. Prof Lennox advises to ask them the most important question:

“Suppose I could give [evidence for God], would you be prepared right now, to repent and trust Christ?”

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Iraq’s hard-pressed Christians face additional difficulties as winter approaches

From “World” section

Christians in parts of Iraq have been chased out of their towns and cities by Islamic State militants but winter will bring its own set of challenges, warns Aid to the Church in Need.

Writing in The Parliament Magazine, ACN’s John Newton and Marcela Szymanski said Christian families in Iraq were “largely unregistered” for international aid and receiving “no support” from the central government in Baghdad.

Instead, much of the provision has come from Iraq’s churches, especially in Erbil and Dohuk in the Kurdish region.

They say more than 70,000 were sheltering in church halls, sports centres and classrooms in Erbil. Others are not so lucky and have been forced to sleep in public spaces like parks and car parks.

Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic church puts the number of Iraqi Christians displaced at 120,000.

Newton and Szymanski said the EU needed to take action “immediately” to avoid the loss of more lives and the country’s rich cultural heritage.

Specifically, they called upon EU policymakers to exert political pressure on the Iraqi government and the governments of neighbouring countries to protect civilians, and appealed for more humanitarian aid via channels other than the UN agencies.

They quoted Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic church as saying: “Many people refuse to register with the UN, they believe that if they stay outside the camps they have more chances to find a job and be quicker to return to their homes once the Nineveh plains are liberated.

“They do not want to depend 100 per cent on aid and the church can support them temporarily in this effort.”

Describing the plight of Iraqi Christians, Patriarch Sako said the IS militants had “taken all they had, physically, morally and psychologically”.

With the winters in Kurdistan being cold, he said the greatest challenge at the present time was the provision of proper living accommodation.

“The people cannot possibly stay in tents,” he said.

Newton and Szymanski said the absence of state support meant the church was bearing the burden of providing food and medical assistance to the thousands of refugees.

They appealed to the EU to “extend its vision of the conflict to the Syrian and Iraqis who happen to be Christian”.

The needs arising out of the approaching winter have been recognised by Samaritan’s Purse, which has just shipped 80 tons of relief to Iraq to help those who have fled the IS terror.

The shipment includes children’s clothing, warm jackets, socks and blankets, as well as 800,000 sq ft of heavy-duty plastic that can be used to insulate tents and shelters.

“Winter is coming. It can be cold,” Samaritan’s Purse President Franklin Graham told media at the airlift.

“Many of the refugees when they fled were only able to leave with the clothes on their back and they are not prepared for this winter. So we’re doing what we can. We want to get this in the country so we can be ahead of the winter weather.”

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The woman John Stott couldn’t live without

From “Life” section

John Stott was one of the last century’s giants of the Christian faith, a household name in evangelical circles, even coming to the attention of Time magazine, who named him one of their 100 most influential people in 2005.

But a less familiar name is that of Frances Whitehead, his personal secretary for more than 50 years and a woman without whom Stott’s own ministry would have been greatly hindered.

After years of spiritual emptiness and searching for meaning in life and the world, the then 27-year-old Whitehead had not been a Christian long when she first encountered Stott - but it was an encounter that almost never happened.

She had landed a job at the BBC, based in the Langham Hotel across the road from All Souls Church, where Stott was a young rector.

The church hadn’t made much of an impression on her when she wandered in for a lunchtime concert one day, and she determined not to bother going back again.

Instead it was All Souls’ sister church a few streets away, St Peter’s Vere Street, that brought her along in her faith with its lunchtime talks, and only after some time there, when she discovered that the two churches were linked, did she head back to All Souls and join their Sunday services.

But even then her pivotal role as Stott’s “right hand” might never have come about had Stott not sensed where her talents could be best put to use.

Whitehead had it in her mind to go to Bible college, when Stott unexpectedly asked her to become his personal secretary.

Despite some initial hesitation, she accepted and arrived for her first day of work at the rectory at 12 Weymouth Street on 9 April 1956. It was to be the start of a unique partnership that would last until “Uncle John’s” death on 27 July 2011.

The story of Frances and that unique partnership is told in Julia Cameron’s new book John Stott’s Right Hand.

The book offers rare glimpses into the ministry of John Stott from the other side of the podium, through the eyes of one who spent hours in devoted but unglamorous service hammering out speeches and books on a clunky typewriter, running errands, organising hectic schedules, and even sewing new curtains.

It was a life of service that went far beyond the call of duty, and as the other half of John’s two-man team, it is little wonder he came to regard her affectionately as “Frances the Omnicompetent”.

But the book also reveals the warm humour in their relationship - Stott also liked to call Frances “Miss Doom” because of her pessimistic side. It also includes a particularly funny recollection from one study assistant of the awkward moment when he was sat between Uncle John and Auntie Frances in the cinema watching Titanic when the now infamous nude scene began to roll.

“I sank deeply into my seat hoping never to have to emerge,” he recalled.

Whitehead, now 89, was at All Souls in September for the launch of the book.

Asked what it was like working so closely with Uncle John for so many years, she answered with humour: “It was very busy. There was a lot of typing. John Stott wrote 50 books. I typed 50 books.”

Explaining why she wrote the book, Cameron said: “Frances was on the staff of the BBC, working for the redoubtable feminist producer Mary Treadgold, when Stott, out of the blue, asked her to become his secretary. Twenty-five years later they would be known around the world as ‘Uncle John’ and ‘Auntie Frances’.

“Stott, who died in 2011, was to say to one his study assistants that he hoped he would die before Frances as he didn’t know how he would cope without her. This book adds a measure of completion to the biographies on Stott himself.”

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