Christian Today Digest – May 2017

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Why do people stop going to church – and what can we do about it?

By Mark Woods

We’ve all experienced it. There’s someone who’s been around for years, part of the church furniture. They’re reliably present at Bible studies and turn up for working parties and lunches. But so gradually it’s hardly noticeable, they appear less often. Evening service drops off, they disengage from church activities and over a few months they fall off the radar completely. ‘What happened to so-and-so?’ ‘I’m not sure – he doesn’t come any more.’

What’s happened? There might be a number of reasons. Perhaps there’s been an unacknowledged falling-out with another church member and it’s festered. Perhaps life events have intervened – a family illness or change in working patterns might make church attendance difficult.

But perhaps there’s something deeper going on, and we really don’t like to talk about it. Evangelical Christians love to talk about conversion – it’s what we do – but the flip side of that is virtually taboo. Because just as people find faith, sometimes they lose it. Call it de-conversion.

At one level this is, in some theological understandings, a problem in itself. A Calvinist who believes in the ‘once saved always saved’ mantra is reduced to arguing that someone who loses their faith either never had it in the first place, or that they haven’t really lost it. In terms of someone’s actual experience, though, that isn’t what it looks like.

It isn’t always possible to stop this ‘faith drain’. It’s a function of human free will, and the process of growth and change that all of us experience throughout our lives. It shouldn’t surprise us – obsessions about football, politics and other human activities ebb and flow as the years go by, and faith, too, is variable. But at the same time we offer it as a life-enriching discipleship that is life-long. If someone finds it’s not, we need to ask why – and learn to do it better.

Here are three things that might cause faith to wither.

1. It stops relating to life

When we read the Bible, we’re often advised to ask, ‘What does it say, what does it mean, and what does it mean to me?’ That last question is key: we can be taught all sorts of fascinating Bible facts, but unless that leap is made to relevance for me, it won’t matter. Discipleship becomes sterile, and we’ll find our real interests and passions elsewhere. The hard intellectual work of relating the gospel to the 21st century has not been done. The risk then is that one day we wake up and think, ‘What would be missing from my life if I weren’t a Christian?’ and don’t have a good enough answer.

2. It becomes incredible

In the proper sense of ‘unbelievable’. We need to be very, very careful what we claim for our faith. If we hitch it to particular causes or make claims not supported by evidence, we risk undermining our claims to absolute truth. As Dean Inge said, ‘Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.’ Evangelicals in the US, who support Donald Trump in far greater proportions than the wider population, may find this to their cost. Christians adamant that the world is only around 10,000 years old will find themselves increasingly marginalised. We can’t be isolated from wider society, and wise, thoughtful engagement rather than denial is the way to keep faith strong.

3. Church can over-promise and under-deliver

Some churches provide full-on, high-octane, all-embracing, immersive religious experiences. Worship services are inspirational emotional highs. Pastors preach brilliantly about what God can do. And it’s great – until God doesn’t. As preacher Christy Wimber said recently, ‘My concern for the charismatic church is there is no door for the mentally ill to come in. There is no theology of suffering.’ If our life experience doesn’t match up to what our church promises – joy, healing, success, fellowship – it’s easy to become disillusioned.

Pastors and elders won’t always be able to make sure someone remains faithful to their baptismal promises or committed to the church community. That’s how things are. But we can help, by listening to people’s doubts and uncertainties, keeping windows open to the world so we don’t become sealed off in a spiritual bubble, and keeping our fingers on the pulse of people’s real life experience.

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Want to solve the crisis facing England’s cathedrals? Here is one answer

By Ruth Gledhill

In terms of attendance, cathedrals are the modern success story of the Church of England. They seem immune from the savage decline that is decimating congregations, particularly outside London. Yet they are failing to monetise this success. And this is leading to a cash crisis in as many as half of them that could mean some even have to close.

There are 42 cathedrals in the Church of England, attended by up to 40,000 people a week – an increase of 18 per cent from a decade ago. Nearly all this is accounted for by midweek services. Festivals do exceptionally well. Easter worshippers rose by two per cent to 54,000 between 2014 and 2015 alone. Christmas attendance was 125,200 in 2015, the highest figure since 2011. And while infant baptisms are falling, in common with the wider Church, baptisms of people over one year of age are increasingly steadily.

There might be some clues to some answers in these stats, but they will not be easily embraced.

The Cathedrals Working Group, set up to examine the cash crisis facing the country’s cathedrals, meets for the first time next month and cathedral deans are meeting in London this week.

Bishop of Stepney Adrian Newman told The Guardian the new working group will examine the ‘potential reputational damage done to the Church if individual cathedrals fail’. He added: ‘The challenges are not new, but we’re looking at a new scale and depth at the moment.’

The cathedrals doing best are those like St Paul’s in London, with huge congregations but also among the nation’s top visitor attractions. They can afford both to charge for entry, and to let worshippers in for free. Many of the rest are struggling.

One of the problems is that they are responsible for their own financing, raised from a hotchpotch of historic funds, grants, offerings, tourism and desperate special appeals. There has to be a better way, possibly involving centralised cathedral funding and prioritising mission.

In reality, though, their problems are symptoms of a malaise at the heart of the wider Church.

How many of the Church’s committed churchgoers go week after week to a small church in the countryside, with a vicar shared among many if there is an incumbent at all, canned bells and music instead of an organist and few if any in the congregation aged under 70? It is not surprising if the remaining worshippers decide at some point to decamp to the nearest cathedral. Perhaps this is when the latest interregnum goes on that bit too long because the diocese can’t find the ‘perfect’ vicar with a spouse and family willing to work outside a fashionable city centre with a university or college student population to evangelise among. Or it might simply be because they can no longer stand the sneers of contempt on the face of their neighbour in church – and the village – when they sing out lustily to their favourite hymns. Better a cathedral. And if that fails, stay home and watch Songs of Praise for as long as that survives.

And what do they get in a cathedral? If they are lucky, a nice gift shop to browse for presents for the grandchildren, a cup of tea and Victoria sponge and then amazing music of classical concert standard in glorious Gothic surroundings – all for a pound in the collection plate, or whatever they can afford.

And the sermon might be pretty good as well. It will certainly be less likely to contain naive political comments about how awful Brexit is but somehow, how great Giles Fraser is. They might have less chance of being lectured on how they really must try and remember to give more money that week because they, individually, are responsible for building up the vicar’s pension fund.

One task of the cathedrals working group should be to find and survey some of the new weekday service attenders. Are they new to the Church of England, or refugees from a failing rural parish nearby? I fear that the majority will be the latter.

So who are the parishes that are truly getting the new people in? We all know the answer to that. Overwhelmingly, they are the evangelical, reformed and charismatic, parishes along the lines of St Helen’s Bishopsgate in London, and Holy Trinity Brompton. They are the churches where tithing is practised, or something very close to it, where life and mission is unashamedly evangelical. This the church that birthed the present Archbishop of Canterbury.

If there is a cathedral run along the lines of HTB, I don’t know about it. Perhaps someone does and could tell me?

My view is that the Church of England really does not need yet another, expensive working group. And HTB really does need a cathedral. Can you imagine Canterbury Cathedral rocking to crashing drums, rhythm guitars and the fabulous Hillsong at 6pm every Sunday? Well, maybe not Canterbury – because then we’ld run the risk of never tempting AB Justin to London again. But Bradford, or Carlisle? Why not?

They’ve set up a working group but the answer is staring them in the face already. Phone Nicky Gumbel and ask him to plant a church. And let Jesus do the rest. Amen.

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Why does Jesus say ‘If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven’?

By Martin Saunders

Jesus says a lot of things that everyone can get on board with, regardless of whether they happen to believe that he’s the resurrected Son of God. The Golden Rule, the bits about loving your neighbour and putting each other first: all make good sense, and form the foundation of our society at its best. He says quite a few more challenging things, however, and some of them even have his followers scratching their heads. Often we simply skip over these less straightforward verses, the ones where Jesus appears to contradict himself or say something out of character, and as a result they’re often both unfamiliar to us, and a bit troubling every time we encounter them.

One good example of this is found in John 20, where the freshly-resurrected Jesus creates all sorts of havoc among his mourning disciples. Not only does he apparently walk through the wall in order to enter their locked room, but he gives them some complicated instructions about their mission in the future. At the end, in verse 23, he says this: ‘If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’

I don’t know if the disciples struggled with this phrase, but it’s certainly a tricky concept for us to get our heads around. Is Jesus really saying that unless – as Jesus followers and Church – we forgive people, they somehow remain unforgiven by God?

I’m pretty confident that he can’t mean that. The rest of the Gospels and the writings of the early Church all seem to contradict that idea (as a few examples, 1 John 1:9 says that God forgives our sins when we confess them, as does Colossians 3:13; while Jesus talks about his blood as the source of sin-forgiveness at the Last Supper in Matthew 26:28). So what is Jesus getting at by suggesting that we have the power to forgive sin – or otherwise leave it untreated?

The answer, as is usually the case in Bible study, is found in looking at the phrase in context. When Jesus has appeared to his disciples, he says three things to them, the third of which is this difficult phrase. First, however, he says (in verse 21) ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ He begins then by telling them that they are about to take his place at the forefront of spreading his message around the world.

Then, slightly strangely if we stop to picture it, he breathes on them and says ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ So after telling them he’s sending them out, Jesus now explains that he’s giving them the power of God as backing, and a resource on which to draw as they minister around the ancient world.

So when we arrive at this challenging final verse, he’s talking about the content of this message that they’re being sent to spread in the power of the Holy Spirit. That message is about the forgiveness of sins – about the fact that the worst mistakes you’ve ever made don’t bar you from life in all its fullness. It’s the most amazing, life-changing news, and Jesus is relying on his Church to spread it. Essentially he’s saying: if the Church I’m building won’t spread this news, how are people going to hear it? So this isn’t a threat, it’s a rallying cry: if you don’t tell people this news, they miss out on the liberation of living without the shadow of guilt, and they miss out on the most fantastic sense of hope. He’s not warning of some spiritual hocus pocus which means only they can forgive sins, he’s adding a sense of urgency to the mission.

Before Jesus came to change the nature of God’s relationship with humanity, God’s people used high priests as a gateway to speak with him. Jesus death and resurrection change all that, so the idea that he would immediately be restoring a priest-like barrier between God and man simply makes no sense. In John 10:9 Jesus says, ‘I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.’ There’s no confusion there – our inability to forgive someone’s has no impact on their eternal destination.

Instead, Jesus is underlining the importance of the forgiveness of sins, and empowering his people to take his incredible offer of liberation far and wide. Just like that offer, this act of empowerment stretches right through history and reaches to us today, and while the Church through the ages might not always have handled it well, Jesus continues to trust us with his message of forgiveness. So to reframe his challenge to the disciples 2,000 years ago for us today: how will our friends, neighbours, school friends and work colleagues hear about it if not through us?

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Donald Trump’s Cabinet meets for weekly Bible study with right-wing pastor

By Harry Farley

Members of Donald Trump’s cabinet have a weekly Bible study with a right-wing pastor and evangelist who has controversial views about women and Roman Catholics, it has emerged.

A copy of energy secretary Rick Perry’s schedule for 5 April obtained by listed the hour-long meeting entitled ‘Cabinet Member Bible Study’.

Although the memo did not list who else attended, it matches with claims on fundamentalist Ralph Drollinger’s website that he has a weekly Bible slot with ‘US Cabinet Members, Senators and Representatives in Washington’.

According to Drollinger’s organisation, Capitol Ministries, several members of Trump’s cabinet including Vice President Mike Pence, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and CIA Director Mike Pompeo have all sponsored the Bible studies, said.

The Republican supporting pastor has made no attempt to hide his own political leanings, praising Trump’s administration for its power to ‘change the course of America in ways that are biblical’.

He once wrote: ‘It is safe to say that God is a Capitalist, not a Communist.’

Known for his controversial views, Drollinger has said of Catholicism: ‘It’s the world’s largest false religion.’

But his most outspoken remarks have been over the role of women. In one of his weekly Bible studies he told female legislators who had children at home they were sinners, according to the Union Tribune.

‘Share all your gifts and talents with your kids, while God has blessed you with offspring,’ he said.

‘See that as a priority for that season of your life and then come share those gifts with our great state.’

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The oldest person in the world is a Jamaican, church-loving Christian aged 117

By Joseph Hartropp

The oldest person in the world is a Jamaican, church-loving Christian aged 117.

Violet Mosse-Brown, born March 10, 1900, said that her faith, commitment to the church and respect for family have helped her live so long.

‘I love the church,’ Brown told the Jamaica Gleaner in 2010.

Baptised at 13, she was born in the Duanvale district of Trelawny, Jamaica.

At age 107 she received a plaque from the Trelawny Baptist Association, celebrating her milestone achievement. She received a plaque from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II when she reached her 115th birthday.

Mosse-Brown, known to many affectionately as ‘Aunt V’ said that her ‘faith in serving God, and believing strongly in the teaching of the Bible’ has been a key factor in her long life, according to the Violet Moss Foundation.

‘Honour your mother and father so your days may be long,’ she told the Gleaner, quoting her favourite verse in the Old Testament.

In her early life, Brown served as a plantation worker cutting cane. She later became a businesswoman in her own right, cultivating her own sugarcane. She has also served as a community activist, church secretary, organist, seamstress and music teacher.

She reflected on the relative ease of modern life: ‘I tell you, these young people these days have it easy — piped water, taxis and buses to bring them where they want to go, everything to their convenience.

‘When I was younger, and even as an adult, I had to work so hard that sometimes when I look back, I cry at how hard I had to work to make a living for my family,’ she told the Gleaner.

The oldest person in the world was previously Italian Emma Morano, 117, who died on Saturday.

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