Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Ministry time

Over the last week, for various reasons, I've been in three different churches, with three different styles of 'doing church'.

The most noticeable difference between the three approaches was in the way each of the three offered ministry - that is, the opportunity to have someone pray for you or pray with you.

In the first (the most traditional), the opportunity 'to have someone pray with you' was offered right at the end of the service. As most of the congregation went to get a coffee, three folk remained near the front, one who wanted to be prayed for, the other two to pray for her. The 'prayer ministry' was carried out seated, with the lady who was to be prayed for explaining what her need was before the other two proceeded to pray for her.

In the second, after the sermon, the pastor said 'we want to pray for you' and explained how, in the next section of the service, the various (badged) members of the prayer team would circulate round the congregation and pray for everyone - if you didn't want prayer you should make your way to the back of the room where a couple of rows of chairs were designated as a 'no go' zone for the prayer team. During this ministry time the band played quiet worship songs, but the words were not up on the screen, so it was clearly not intended for the congregation to join in the singing, even though several folk did. During this time members of the prayer team would approach people (of the same gender) and simply start praying for them - they didn't ask for any particular need, they mostly prayed that the person would experience the Spirit more. There was quite a lot of shaking going on, some falling over and other external phenomena. At the end of this time the pastor asked if anyone who wanted prayer hadn't had it yet, and those folk were prayed for before the band returned to leading the congregation in worship.

In the third, after the sermon, the pastor simply said (with no explanation for outsiders) that it was 'ministry time' and asked the congregation to stand. He then 'invited the Spirit to come' and made a few (brief) comments about 'the Spirit of God drawing near' and about receiving from Him. Shortly after this, a few members of the congregation went to the front and spoke, quietly, with the pastor. After a moment of silence the pastor named two folk in the congregation that he 'sensed the Spirit was resting on'. Then the six folk who had gone to the front, in turn, explained the 'pictures' they had been given and suggested an explanation which may be relevant to one or more folk in the congregation. The pastor then invited folk from the congregation, who felt the 'words' might be relevent to them, and the two folk he had named, to come forward for prayer. The folk at the front prayed for those who came forward, standing. There was no significant external phenomena (shaking, tongues, etc.). Then the pastor declared that the service was over, although several remained at the front in prayer for a while.

I have mixed feelings about each of these approaches. In many ways, I prefer the latter two because they both have an expectation of God's presence and an expectation that he will actually do something, whereas the first seems to want to distance most of the congregation from actually interacting with God - prayer ministry is only for the few, and only for those with specific needs. But I'm not sure how I would feel about taking a non-believer into either of the latter two settings. Without a lot of pre-explanation (which would probably be off-putting) I don't think a non-believing visitor would be particularly comfortable in either setting.

In the third church, the clear expectation was that 'God will have something to say to us (through the medium of 'pictures' or 'words of knowledge') at every service'. But what if God said everything he wanted to through the preacher? And how can we know if the 'pictures' or 'words' expressed by the members of the congregation came from above or simply out of an active imagination. Indeed, one of the 'pictures' shared this week was of a car advert - one that is on tv fairly regularly - it wouldn't take the involvement of the Spirit to bring that picture to mind, merely an aimlessly wandering thought process. If God wants to speak in such a way to that group of people on a weekly basis, does he also want to say such things to the first church, but they're not listening? Or is He not speaking loudly enough?

I'm not totally trying to dismiss seeing pictures or having words of knowledge - I have experience of receiving both myself - but not on demand or on a weekly basis. How can we be sure of the origin of these words?

Words and pictures were also shared in the second church (indeed, I have heard them occasionally shared in the first church too, but not every week or even every month) but there they seemed more like an added bonus rather than an expectation. The attitude there was much more 'we expect to be filled with Your Spirit, and if You choose to speak to us we will be listening'.

One of the things about the third church that was notable was that there was no music or other emotive thing going on during ministry time. People were not coerced into any particular state of behaviour. I liked the fact that nothing was forced, but I actually found the silence uncomfortable. In the second church it is much easier to claim that there is some emotional manipulation going on in the environment (gentle music, dimmed lights) and that some of the phenomena could be a purely emotional response, although there is certainly real stuff going on there too. Here, at times, the noise was uncomfortable.

Having recounted all this, I don't think I really have a point to make. I certainly am not saying that one way is 'right' and the others are 'wrong'. All three have some value, but I can see negative aspects of all three too. I couldn't even say which style I preferred (although I might incline slightly towards the second, due to the fact that everyone is prayed for and due to the music). This is just me thinking out loud. If anyone reading this has any insights I'd love to hear them.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Now and then

I listened to another atheist podcast on the train this morning. I probably shouldn't do this as it just frustrates me. The 'Infidel Radio' podcast featured an interview with Nicholas Everitt, author of the book 'The Non-Existence of God'. Nicholas Everitt seems like a nice person and made a number of well reasoned arguments in defense of the atheist position. Fair enough.

What annoys me, though, is the unstated assumption that runs through all of the arguments for and against the existence of a deity - that the battleground between theism and non-theism is entirely in the realm of creation or the origins of the universe. Its all 'then', its never 'now'.

The greatest claim, not merely of Christianity but of all theistic positions is that God is. Not that 'God is [something]' (like, perhaps 'God is omniscient') but that God is a reality in the present.

Debates about what happened six thousand years ago or billions of years ago at the time of creation / origin are fine, but they only deal with then, not now. If there is no god now, then what's the point of arguing about then.

So many of the theistic arguements that Nick Everitt knocked down relied on 'God is [something]' reasoning. Thus, if it can be shown to be reasonable that a god cannot be [whatever] then it logically follows that (the specified) god cannot exist. QED.

But none of the arguments even attempted to address the 'God is' issue.

I truly believe that God is. Not because I was raised this way, not because I reasoned my way towards it, but because I have experienced God and cannot find any other reasonable explanation for all the experiences I have had. Sure, some may have been emotional response, some may have been psycological and triggered by the power of suggestion by clever motivational speakers, but not all. Some were due to the real God.

God is - of this I am convinced beyond reasonable doubt.

Of course I still have loads of doubts:
God is omnipotent? Not sure...
God is omnipresent? Could be...
God is the creator? Room for doubt there too...
and so on.
But God is.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I've been good. I've not been doubting any of the Christmas stories over the past few weeks. Well, not doubting them in public anyway. But now we come to Epiphany and the visit of the Magi...

Who were these guys? And most importantly, did any wise men from the East actually come and visit the baby Jesus having followed a star to Bethlehem? Or is this just a myth?

On the face of it, it sounds like a myth. For a start, three of the gospel writers make no mention of this incident, only Matthew includes it. Then, there is the oddity of the star - the wise men see it and travel to Jerusalem. Only after they've asked about the baby king and are told to go to Bethlehem, does the star apprently give any guidance.

Also, if you look into it, you'll find that the pre-Christian god Mithras was visited by Magi from the east at his birth. Given that there are an awful lot of similarites between the stories about Mithras and those told about Jesus, might it not be that some stories had been muddled together in the oral tradition, and by the time Matthew heard it the story said that Magi visited at the birth of Jesus?

But supposing it did happen... Who were these guys? Not Jews, that's for sure. If they were star-gazers from the East, chances are they were Zoroastrians. Or possibly Hindus or Buddhists.

I read an interesting (and highly dodgy) book some time ago called 'The Lost Years of Jesus' by Elizabeth Prophet (new-agey type, her husband was possibly a cult leader) which supposedly presented the evidence that Jesus had gone on a pilgrimage to the east duing his lost years (the gospels say nothing of him between the ages of 13 and 30). Most of the book is nonsense, but there was one slightly compelling bit of reasoning why this should be. The reasoning went as follows: if the Magi came to see Jesus as a child, surely they would have come back to check up on him in later life. Apparently there was a tradition in certain Buddhist circles of identifying the 'chosen one' (who will grow up to be Dali Lama or equivalent) at birth, but not taking them away from their home for training until they are about 13. Perhaps Jesus was identified as a chosen one and trained in the east before returning for his ministry... This would explain some paralles in the teaching of Jesus with some earlier Hindu texts (although the parallels all fall in the gospel of John, so maybe John knew the Hindu texts, not Jesus). Anyway, I'm not totally convinced by the reasoning in this book, even if it was interesting. But the point remains, why don't the Magi return later in the gospel story?

Anyone got any insights here?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Salvation on other planets?

This post is a bit more 'out there' than most of my musings, but please stick with me...

Larry Norman
once sang these words:
"...and if there's life on other planets then I'm sure that He must know and He's been there once already and has died to save their souls..."
Song: 'UFO' from the album: 'In Another Land' (1976)
The bible was written in a time when the world was flat, the sun orbited the earth and stars were small lights that lit up the night. The very concept of other planets, let alone other planets capable of supporting life, had not yet been conceived. Everything in the bible relates to us - earthbound humans.

But what if there is life on other planets?

We know that 'Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring [us] to God' (1 Peter 3v18). But does Christ's sacrifice on this planet atone for the sins of the whole universe? Or is it like Larry Norman says, that Christ will have had to die on all other inhabited (and fallen) planets to save them too?

I'm pretty sure that there are other inhabited planets out there in the universe, probably loads of them. Has Christ died loads of times?

Or is it like C.S. Lewis describes it in his 'Out of the silent planet' trilogy - where only earth has fallen and all other planets are in harmony with God?

I realise there is no way we can actually come up with a definite answer to this question, but I'm interested in the opinions of my regular readers (I know some of you read sci-fi, so you must have opinions on such things...), so what do you think?

My take on it is this - it must be a once for all sacrifice. If there are beings on other planets in need of salvation then Christ must have been incarnated there as well - at the same time - and all the various incarnations of him must have been crucified (or whatever the local execution method might have been) simultaneously. However, I don't hold to this opinion very strongly, I'm sure I could be persuaded out of it by intelligent reasoning... ;o)