sábado, julio 25, 2009

Theory of relevance

Many young Christians consider it profoundly important to be ‘relevant’. This is possibly a reaction to the fact that, for years now, the Western church has been deemed archaic and, essentially, irrelevant by mainstream culture. Given that we, as Christians, are charged with bringing the good news about Jesus Christ to this culture, it seems important to reverse this trend. After all, if we are considered irrelevant, who is going to listen to us?

So we should at least try not to seem irrelevant. We need to demonstrate that the church is not just an old building that constantly needs repairs, or an over-50s club for conservatives. It is good that we wish to break down such misconceptions, and many Christians have done a brilliant job of doing so. However, I believe that some of us have often misunderstood what relevance actually means in a cultural sense.

For example, I think that Christians are the only people I have ever heard talk about the need to ‘be relevant’. To illustrate this point, I typed the word ‘relevant’ into Google™. The number one result was a Christian magazine. A little further down was a Christian radio station. Although the magazine seemed really good, and the radio station is probably fine, I believe this may highlight the fact that as Christians we are eager to ‘be relevant’ in a way that many others are not. Arguably, then, our very use of the word ‘relevant’ may be an indicator of subculture status.

Usually, the word ‘relevant’ is followed by a preposition: we say that something is relevant to something else. I am not just trying to be pedantic (although I am probably being a little pedantic); the point is this: relevance is contextual. In most cases, we cannot say that something is relevant without considering its object. Is a cake recipe relevant? It is if you are trying to bake a cake; it isn’t if you are trying to put out a fire. I like the Merriam-Webster definition of ‘relevant’ as, ‘having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand’ (see http://www.merriam-webster.com/). Whilst I think most Christians do understand this, we often fall into the trap of removing the idea of relevance from a specific context, and that makes it hard to define what really is and isn’t relevant.

Following the example above, a cake recipe provides something that is needed in a particular situation; i.e. instructions on how to make a cake. As Christians, we aim to offer something that those in our culture desperately need: salvation from sin and death. The Apostle Paul said that, ‘the gospel… is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes’ (see Romans 1:16). If this is true, then the gospel is by its very nature relevant to all people. Those in our culture are trapped in sin and the gospel offers to save them from it – the gospel has a demonstrable bearing on their condition. So our task is not to become relevant, or to make the gospel relevant, but to demonstrate to those around us how the gospel already is relevant to them.

The issue, often, is that some aspects of church culture appear so stifled or archaic that those in mainstream culture assume that our message is also archaic before they even consider it. For this reason, I can understand the desire to make ourselves seem ‘relevant’. However, I would argue that the solution is not to pursue relevance, but to pursue excellence. What do I mean? Well, a couple of things really. Firstly, pursuing relevance implies that you do not already have it, and we do. The gospel, as I have said, is the most radical and relevant answer to the problem of evil and suffering in the world, and even the most boring church service cannot change that. Secondly, in practice, aiming to be relevant has often meant aiming to mimic the prevailing culture in the West. One partial result of this is that the church ends up moving about ten years behind everyone else in music (rather than further behind). When I was growing up in the nineties, the songs we sang in church sounded mostly as though they had been written in the seventies or eighties (and, in fact, many of them had). There is nothing wrong with using old songs, but my conviction is that Christians should be using their skills to move at least at the same pace as others in the arts, sciences, and business, for example. Thirdly, then, pursuing excellence instead of relevance frees us from the need to fit a certain cultural model and, hopefully, liberates the creative and gifted among us to use their talents in connection with the church. Those who are creating culture in the world are not working with a totally blank canvas, but neither are they painting by numbers, trying to recreate a picture that someone else has drawn. If we want to be up-to-date, we need to be working alongside the trend-setters, shaping culture, rather than following on behind them.

So, as Christians, we should be involved in our cultures, not as copycats but as culture-shapers. We must do this without compromising on the truth of the gospel, which is the thing we have that really is relevant to this world’s needs. This is how we can help prevent ourselves from being pigeonholed as an outdated subculture. In doing so, we do not make ourselves or our message relevant, but we do open up avenues of communication and influence, so that we can demonstrate the bearing that the gospel has on individuals and societies today. Watching good television, listening to exciting new music and reading good books can all help with inspiration and communication, but one key ingredient is to become actively involved in forming culture. Even as I am writing this, I feel challenged to think about how I can engage more with the society around me, as so often I end up being an introspective, disengaged Christian in a world that is moving at an incredible pace. In a sense, I think that we have done well to close the gap between where we are and where the culture-shapers are. I think now, though, the challenge is to increasingly become culture-shapers ourselves.

martes, junio 20, 2006


"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (Matthew 6:25-26)

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:33-34)

I have a confession to make: I am a ‘worrier’; or at least I worry a lot. I lived in denial of that for a long time because it is not cool to worry, especially for a young wannabe macho. My typecast of a ‘worrier’ was always my friend Guy’s mum. When we were younger, we joked about the fact that she always found something to be concerned about. Perhaps as a result, I saw worrying as a stereotypically feminine characteristic: one that particularly revealed itself in middle-aged women with children. For that reason it was difficult for me to admit that I struggled in that area.

But worrying is not limited to a particular gender. Arguably we do see the most pronounced signs of it in middle-aged women because they are our mothers, and so naturally we are the source of most of their concerns. But men are equally capable of worrying. Perhaps the words we use to describe it change, but the essence remains the same. Jesus didn’t bother with terms like ‘work-related stress’, which sound more grown-up or respectable. He just said don’t worry.

I think worrying is something that, if unchecked, develops with age. A young child generally doesn’t have many great concerns in life. Often he is not even concerned about his own safety. That’s one reason why mums worry so much. By the time we reach our teenage years, however, we have accumulated a great number of extremely serious concerns, such as: ‘Does my hair look good today?’, ‘Will I pass all my GCSE exams?’, and ‘Does he/she like me?’ By the time we get to adulthood, this tendency to worry has become an established part of our mindset. The worries just get bigger and more complicated as our responsibilities and mental capacity increase.

Jesus didn’t talk much about these more complex concerns. He didn’t mention male pattern baldness, work deadlines, social hierarchies or relational stresses – as far as I know. He just talked about some of the most basic concerns that we have: the foundational ones in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. God promises to meet all foundational needs. As Jesus said, God feeds the birds of the air, so he will feed you too, because you are so much more valuable than them. God says that we who believe in Christ are His children, and co-heirs with Christ. He is not the kind of father who feeds his pets but doesn’t feed his children. That would be ridiculous. Imagine if the Queen of England fed her Corgis but let the princes starve. Even if she did, God would not neglect us.

But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me."

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!

(Isaiah 49:14-15)

We know that he will meet our basic needs. Our primary responsibility is not to provide ourselves with food, clothing and shelter, but to ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness’. If we do this, he will always show us His faithfulness, which is infinitely greater than ours. We can enjoy today without fearing what may become of us tomorrow. We know that Jehovah Jireh (‘God will see/provide’) is with us, and that His care of us will not fail.

But what about the slightly more complex needs? When Jesus says, ‘seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’, in the immediate context he is speaking about food, drink and clothing. What about the things that perhaps we don’t require for physical survival, but which we consider to be so important that we do not want to live all our lives without them? This is often where our trust breaks down. Suddenly, we don’t feel so confident that God will provide – or perhaps we are not so confident that we will really like His provision. We think that perhaps He won’t give us the very best. One example might be the search for a wife or husband. Maybe we don’t see quite so many promises about that. The same could be true in other areas of our life, too.

Our trust should not be primarily in the promises but in the character and ability of the One who makes them. Our God is both infinitely powerful and incredibly generous. And he is deeply interested in our needs; even more than we are, in fact. Before saying, ‘But seek first his kingdom…’ Jesus explains: ‘…the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them’. When he gave his Sermon on the Mount, he said, ‘And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’ (Matthew 6:7-8) I love the detail that in the beginning, Adam did not say to God, ‘I’m kind of lonely here. It’s not good for me to be alone! Give me somebody else to talk to and have babies with!’ Instead, ‘the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable helper for him.”... Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of man, and he brought her to the man.’ (Genesis 2:18, 22) God takes the initiative in providing for us. He is not a begrudging provider: he is infinitely generous.

In his letter to the Roman church, the apostle Paul says, ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not, also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ (Romans 8:32) One of the things Paul is saying here is this: God’s generosity has already been proven. He has given the most precious and costly gift possible: His own everlasting Son. What is more, He has given this Son, through whom all things were created, for sinners like you and me. It was a gift of pure grace. It was completely underserved. We have no grounds, therefore, on which to question God’s generosity. In fact, we can fully trust in it, for God is unchanging.

Yet so often I falter in my trust. Every day I seem to be anxious about something. God has been challenging me about that, and showing me that I need to deal with it. A good friend of mine here sent me a verse by text message. Then, two days later, another friend sent me the same verse: Philippians 4:6-9. I quote the first part of that passage here:

‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’


jueves, mayo 11, 2006

More than the moment:

Over the Easter week, I went on an amazing trip with a friend, Daniel, to the Gran Sabana in the South East of Venezuela. It’s a landscape unlike any other on earth, and it inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write his famous book, The Lost World, about a hidden land of dinosaurs and other prehistoric species. I really could identify with that perception when one morning we swam alone below a 60 meter-high waterfall, with birds flying above, crying and dancing between the two cascades. When another friend arrived, we walked further along the river, before walking up the hill to one side, where we could see the waterfall, the campsite above it, and in the distance, behind, one of the Tepuis. These are unique, huge table-top mountains that dot the plain, and are unique to the region. In the afternoon we went down to the falls again, this time with other people, and Daniel and I found a ledge and passed behind the cascade of water. That day for me was the highlight of the trip – truly amazing. At the end of the week, on the journey back to civilization, Daniel and I had a long discussion about life and God and those things. Daniel is a Jew who doesn’t really believe in God – at least not a God that he is prepared to look for. But that night there was one thing he said which really caught my attention:

‘Lo que me importa es el actual, lo que estoy viviendo ahorita’.

Translated into English, that’s something like: ‘what matters to me is the present, that which I’m experiencing right now.’

Living in the moment:

Daniel actually taught me something. He is generally someone who is relaxed, spontaneous and a lot of fun to be with. I am a person who thinks a lot, and who can waste a lot of time over-thinking decisions. Some people call it ‘the paralysis of analysis.’ If I’m honest, often I think of God as a perfectionist, who always expects me to make the right decision, and becomes angry with me when I don’t. This makes me very scared of making mistakes in life; not so much because I can’t handle the consequences, as because I fear displeasing Him. In my weakest moments that decision could be about which product to buy in the supermarket, or whether to go swimming or not: you know, really stupid things. But God is not like that. He sent His only Son to die for all my sins – including all the very worst things that I have done – and I think He is really bothered about whether I splash out the extra 50p to go ‘super size’. When you think about it, it’s kind of an insult to His character. He is generous, kind, patient, merciful, gracious, loving and so much more, and yet in my relationship with Him, I treat Him like he is always ready to get angry if I stuff up. If your friends treated you like that you’d get fed up with them.
Thankfully, God is more patient than we are.

Realising that God is patient and loving – and all those other things – also frees us from the fear of negative consequences. In Jeremiah 29:11, God says to his people that he has plans to prosper them, and not to harm them. He has promised us that he will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Jesus said that nobody could snatch his sheep out of His hand (John 10:27-29). We have a lot of promises that tell us that God will look after us. Yes, we know that bad things happen. Sometimes we make mistakes and have to live with them. But ultimately, we are assured that nothing can separate us from the love that God has for us in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). If you are a Christian you know that even if your relationships fall apart, if you lose your job, if you face persecution, if all your dreams are torn to shreds, or even if you die, God will be with you. And he won’t just be with you; He’ll be loving you and restoring you.

Knowing all this frees us to live in the moment, and to make decisions without all our hair falling out from the stress. It really is good to know that we don’t have to get everything right – Jesus Christ has already done that on our behalf. Our acceptance before God is not dependent upon our perfection, but on the perfection of Him who died for our sins. Equally, we do not have to fear the consequences of every action, as though one slip might bring our life crashing down around us. We have better promises than that, and we trust that as we follow God He will complete his purpose in our lives. So we can relax a little. We can be spontaneous. We can laugh and cry with our friends. We can be generous. We can be kind. We don’t always have to stick to the routine. We are not confined to religious protocol. We are free to live a life that is disciplined and productive but not bound by rules. We can really enjoy the adventure of pursuing a relationship with our Creator.

Living for something beyond the moment:

Just as Daniel taught me something, I wish I could also teach Him something. What I would teach him is this: your life is more than this moment, and your decisions do have consequences. I wish I could open his mind and show him that our decisions on earth determine our eternal destiny. Jesus told a parable (a kind of story with a meaning) about two men who each built their own house. You can find this story in the bible in Matthew 7:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash."

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

In this story, the men’s houses represented their lives. Your life is not just a series of moments; it is something that you build – like a house. A house must have good foundations. In the parable, however, there is one man who builds his house on sand. ‘That’s foolish’, you might think – but it’s much easier than building a foundation on rock. Building with rock is hard work, and requires dedication and a sense of purpose. The person who only thinks about the present moment chooses sand. It’s exactly the same with a child who arrives at the beach and wants to have fun: he does not take a chisel; he takes a bucket and a plastic spade. The child has a good time, but when the water comes everything he has built is destroyed. That is roughly what happened to the man who built his house on sand. And that, according to Jesus, is also what happens to everyone who does not build their life on a proper foundation.

You see, the bible makes it absolutely clear that there is a final judgement. That is what the storm represents in the parable. As John Ortberg points out, both of the builders faced exactly the same event. Equally, every man ‘is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement.’ There is no escaping such an event: it is inevitable; but we have the opportunity to prepare ourselves for it, so that we might not suffer loss. Some preachers talk about the storm as being a difficult happening in life, like an illness. Whilst it’s true that we need a foundation to face such events, Jesus seems to be referring to something more universal, more decisive. One of the continual threads in his preaching was the urgency of seeking God while He can be found, because there is a point when the opportunities end. None of us knows when that will be. The storm will come; and in that moment you must be ready. The man who built his house on the sand was not.

But there is good news as well in the story. One of the builders was prepared for the storm, and his house survived. His life had the right foundation. This is a message of grace. Notice how Jesus did not talk about the excellent quality of the man’s handiwork: He talked about the foundation. Paul writes that:

‘No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 3:11)

Everything we do matters. Our decisions in the present affect eternity. The most important of these decisions is whether to place your life on the foundation of Jesus Christ. The moment you trust your life to Him, He moves it from the sand to the rock. You have the assurance that when the storm comes, you will not be destroyed. You will be saved. Beyond that, you have the opportunity to build a life that is worth something. You will not have to look back at your life and weep because of the all the wasted opportunities. You will be able to look back and thank God that you were able to build something beautiful that is rewarded in eternity. Opportunities pass, but your decisions remain with you.


lunes, abril 03, 2006

What I don't know:

There are a lot of things that Christians just can't explain. We might try, but we find ourselves stumbling over our words, looking for answers that we just don't have. Those things may include questions like, 'Where the heck did Cain's wife come from?!' (Cain, if you don't know, was one of Adam and Eve's sons). A Canadian guy once said to me, 'So, like, if we all come from two people, why don't I have, like, 3 thumbs and one leg?'. I found that very annoying, because I couldn't really tell him. Sometimes we don't exactly know. But then sometimes we don't need to.

That might sound a bit naïve. I mean, how can I just swallow this stuff when there are such big gaps in my knowledge? Actually, though, whatever your beliefs are about the world, there are a lot of things you can't explain. You have to accept that. Even the most educated biologist on earth cannot give you all the answers. The main difference between the theist (believer in God) and the atheist (the opposite) in this instance is that the theist has someone greater to fall back on. When we come to the brink of our understanding and are left with the impossible, we find God, for whom nothing is impossible. So we don't have to have absolutely all the answers. The atheist does not like God, or the responsibility that belief involves, so he hides from the impossible. However, he can never remove it.

To explain what I mean, I want to continue talking about origins. The most popular non-religious explanation is the 'big bang' theory. This avoids the Adam and Eve issue, and also the discomfort of personal accountability before God. But we only have to ask, 'and before that?'. Even if we ignore the other problems with this theory, we are left with the fact that there had to be something there to explode in the first place. It's impossible to produce something from nothing. It's also impossible for a set of particles to exist eternally and then, after eternity, explode randomly and create a universe of order and beauty.

Both the Christian and the atheist face impossibility, and there is a point when the atheist also runs out of answers. It seems to me, though, that in those instances the questions are bigger. The impossible may confuse the Christian, but it utterly confounds the atheist.

lunes, marzo 27, 2006

Hey, I just thought I'd write a quick update. I've been on 'school' holiday recently and partly for that reason have been exceptionally lazy with this blog, and arguably with some other areas of my life as well. It's my first day back on campus, and I'm in the office again, waiting for lunchtime. I still don't have my timetable for this term actually, so I'm waiting for that too.

I'll try to write soon. In fact, I did write something. It's about gaps in our knowledge and I'll put it on when I can. It's in my bedroom at home so I have to bring it to the office, make some changes, and type it up, which seems so easy... (actually, it is).

Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I haven't completely forgotten.

Hugs and kisses,


viernes, marzo 03, 2006

© Peter Szczerbicki 2006

These are photos from a trip to the Laguna Negra in Merida, Venezuela. As you can see from this photo, the 'Black Lagoon' isn't always black. On this day the colours were amazing. We caught the bus to Laguna Mucubaji and walked about an hour to the Negra, where we ate, and I swam. Actually, when I entered it was so cold I started to walk out, but there was a group of people on the other shore and they started shouting and motioning for me to dive in. Well, I had to really. It was freezing but, again, a great experience. Before that, sitting in the sun, I was looking out over the colours in the water, and the mountains rising up at the other end. To my right a dragonfly was buzzing around where the sunlight glittered in the water. I'm pleased with the pictures, but there is no way that they could capture what it is to be in a place like that. I hope you can get an idea at least.

By the time we arrived back to Mucubaji, the clouds had settled down over the lagoon and were just beginning to lift again. It was like a whole different world. I walked down and took some photos of that while my friends went to watch some people fishing in a stream nearby. When the clouds lifted I went to find them and we kicked a ball around, then took some photos in the sunset, before heading down to the road. The last bus back to the city (2 hours drive away) passed without stopping, and nobody would give us a lift. One taxi wouldn't take us because there were 6 of us. We prayed for God to help us and in the end decided to walk, in the dark, along the road to Apartaderos and look for somewhere to stay or something. We walked and jogged about 15 or 20 minutes below an incredible blanket of stars, before finally someone passing in a truck decided to give us a lift to Apartaderos. I lay down in the back of the truck and had an amazing ride staring up at the stars. From Apartaderos we caught a bus to Mucuchies, where we eventually stayed for free with a friend of one of the girls. What a trip.

The next Saturday I went back to the same lagoons with some different friends. Again, it was really good fun, and Marcos and I climbed up to a waterfall by the far shore of the lagoon. I swam again. Marcos also ran into the water, after I persuaded him, and dived in, before running straight back out. This time we managed to catch the bus!

© Peter Szczerbicki 2006