Archive for January, 2011
Gospel discipleship over the long haul
Council estates, urban priority areas, low income households: the gospel is powerful to save anyone, from anywhere, but what does making disciples look like in the ‘hard places’ of our country, where progress can seem heartbreakingly slow?
For more details and to book click here, or watch the conference trailer below.
In Urban Harvest Roy Joslin highlights that those living in deprived areas often form their opinions on life based mainly on impression – what they see and experience. The middle-class on the other hand, often those who have been through higher education, shape their worldview primarily through reasoning. This has massive implications for us as Christians in these areas – what we do is as important as what we say.
I just wanted to provide a real life example of this, which forced me to start thinking more about how I speak about the gospel.
A mum who lived near us made a throwaway comment about smoking. She said she thought smoking when pregnant was fine. I asked her what she thought about the big label on her cigarette packet, “SMOKING WHEN PREGNANT HARMS YOUR BABY”. She replied that it was a load of rubbish. She then went on to explain that she had followed the doctor’s advice with her first child, and had stopped smoking. The pregnancy had been tough, and there were serious complications at the birth. So for her next pregnancy she took no notice of the warnings and happily puffed away through her nine months. This time the pregnancy, birth and baby were all fine. Her conclusion: the doctors are wrong, and smoking is fine.
I thought about how this lady had formed her opinion on the poison of smoking. And I realised most of what I was saying about the poison of sin and the remedy of the gospel was probably going over her head too! Not because I was using complicated reasoning, but because I wasn’t connecting with or countering her existing impressions of Christianity.
So how do we adjust for this difference in thinking? Joslin says mistaken opinions “can only be changed by… the influence of a contrary set of sense impressions”. Real life testimonies can have a massive effect here, particularly if they are from others who have grown up in the same area. But there is no quick substitute for simply doing as Jesus did, and being ‘a friend of sinners’. Only then will the radical difference of our Christ-centred, Spirit-empowered lives both connect with and counter those false impressions.
A lack of forgiveness is a common problem in disadvantaged areas. It affects not only individuals, but spreads through communities. The closeness of family and community ties in some estates presents great opportunities for the gospel when someone is converted. But those close ties can also spread hatred when someone is wronged. A lack of forgiveness also often inhibits change in other areas. One pastor says ‘forgiveness has brought up a whole load of issues in my context’.
This pastor takes a strong, black and white approach, often saying: ‘If you don’t want to forgive people, that’s okay, but you can’t say you follow Jesus’. A willingness to forgive is portrayed as the touchstone of a genuine experience of divine forgiveness (Matthew 6:14-15). He finds it impossible to pastor in other areas of people’s lives until they have at least shown the desire to forgive. But a willingness to forgive does mean forgiveness is easy. One believer who was horrifically abused for years knows she needs to forgive her abuser and wants to do so, but finds this very hard, sometimes seemingly impossibly hard. But she is asking Jesus for strength to forgive.
Forgiveness is a relational concept that involves reconciliation after repentance. God does not forgive us until we have repented (though in his grace he grants repentance so uniquely in God a willingness to forgive leads inexorably to forgiveness). So it may not always be helpful to ask someone whether they forgive another person. Without repentance and reconciliation, forgiveness remains an abstract idea. It can only be a ‘willingness to forgive’ and that can be hard to measure in the absence of repentance. So it may be more helpful to ask someone whether they love another person, not in the sense of feeling affection for them, but in the sense of wanting the best for them. And a test of this may be how they pray for them.