Good news stories

by Richard on November 28, 2008

I needed some good news. Maybe you do too.

Via an email from the Methodist Church I came across these stories of welcome from the Evangelical Alliance. And guess what? In three of the four stories featured on the front page (when I looked), the Methodist church figures prominently.

My eye was caught particularly by the story of Irfan John, a Pakistani who has become a Methodist Minister since arriving in Wales. He and I shared a welcome service in August, so I feel something of a bond with him. He has an unusual appointment as the Synod enabler for ethnic minority congregations. And he’s a very fine fellow, with a lovely family.

I know that this isn’t the time to be complacent, but I can’t help feeling that inspiring stories like this tell us that as a church we are at least getting some things right.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1

PamBG 11.28.08 at 5:44 pm

I don’t think that telling good news stories is ‘complacent’.

We listened to Stephen Poxon this morning and one of the things that he said echos what Martyn Atkins said: that telling each other good stories will not only encourage us but also give us ideas. What works in Swansea might just work in Portsmith.

Words and stories are really important. Which, presumably we know because we preach. Repeating stories of doom and gloom helps no one , gives no one good ideas, and doesn’t encourage anyone. Criticism is not ‘constructive’ unless it points to a clear picture of what the right goal would look like. But good news stories can be constructive because they encourage others and help us to share good ideas.

2

Kim Fabricius 11.28.08 at 7:07 pm

Repeating stories of doom and gloom helps no one.

Oops, there go the prophets and the the apocalypses! ;)

“Sharing” “good” stories from our churches now seems to be de rigueur; it’s certainly the fashion in the URC. Of course I take Pam’s point about “constructive” criticism and the need for mutual encouragement. And even the gloomiest of the prophets (at least as finally edited by their followers and successors) and the the Revelation to St. John are, are ultimately good news. But I confess that it worries me when “good” stories function as denials and cover-ups, or a whistling in the dark - and they do.

However - and I hope what follows will be taken precisely as “constructive criticism” - what really concerns me is the failure of church leaders to think through theologically the “bad” stories, especially the big bad story, the contemporary metanarrative, of the institututional churches in free-fall. There are plenty of sociological analyses - and important ones - of euro-secularity and ecclesiastical decline, but how often do you hear, except from the bitter and twisted, that the Big Bad Story, and bad local stories, may actually be a sign of God’s judgement on the (Constatinian) church, a judgement with which we have to reckon, and from which we can faithfully move on only in repentance? The metaphor of a “church in exile” is bandied about but rarely deeply explored, while the radical yet promising notions of ecclesial “dispossession” and “diaspora” are hardly on most folk’s radar. By all means let us discover what “works” - but only in this context; otherwise whatever we fix will soon break.

3

PamBG 11.28.08 at 7:43 pm

Kim, in plain English please. Seriously. It sounds like nice, high-fallutin’ theological language but I seriously don’t know what you’re aiming for any more than I know what D is aiming for by repeatedly telling us all that we’re useless and stuck up our bums.

I disagree with you about the prophets. They were demanding unpopular change but most of them - as I recall - were quite clear about what the changes were that were required.

4

Fat Prophet 11.28.08 at 10:21 pm

Thanks Kim I haven’t had my dictionary out for a while but I have had to after reading this post, at least two words I had never come across - it is nearly as good as ‘Improve your word power’ in Readers Digest.
I have to say that I agree with Pam in that I don’t really understand where you are aiming with this post - perhaps a little clarification would be helpful.

5

Kim 11.28.08 at 11:59 pm

What a lexiphobic lot! ;)

Thank you, Fat Prophet, for the generous way in which you seek clarification. As for Pam’s tetchiness, well, I like her smooth so much that I can live with the rough!

Look, when the prophets, as the Lord’s spokesmen, demand change they do so on the basis of a close theological reading of Israel. When Israel seems to be doing well - domestically prosperous, internationally safe (for the moment), religiously passionate, etc. - as in the mid-eighth century BCE, Amos appears and cries, “Not so fast - Israel is under judgement!” When, on the other hand, Israel is up against it - Babylon at the gates and the court prophets complacently counselling resistance - as in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE, Jeremiah appears and likewise cries, “Not so fast - Israel is under judgement!” Both Amos and Jeremiah tell the people - especally the leaders - to take a good hard look at themselves, and to wake up to the fact that their dire straits, denied or undeniable, is due to their infidelity and disobedience, which they must acknowledge as the real cause of their krisis (judgement) before they can hear a word of hope. And that’s what I miss in much of the analysis of contemporary ecclesiastical decline. Decline is explained sociologically, and churches come up with state-of-the-art packs, programmes, and processes to ginger themselves up, and we are constantly told we need to tell ourselves the good stories. I’m afraid I see a fair amount of self-deception in much - not all - of this pious endeavour, a refusal to lament and repent, a refusal that does not reckon with God’s judgement and holiness.

In Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (1986), Walter Brueggemann speaks of Jeremiah as a prophet of profound hope only as he is first “a voice of deep grief” in the face of opponents who are “managers of the status quo who deceive themselves … They are fascinated with statistics. They are skillful at press conferences. They believe their own propaganda. They imagine that God loves rather than judges, that the Babylonian threat will soon disappear …, that the economy is almost back to normal, that Judean values will somehow survive, that religion needs to be affirmative, that things will hold together if we all hug each other.” “Only Grief Permits Newness” is the title of the book’s section on Jeremiah.

“Only Holiness Gives Hope”, in turn, takes us into the times and message of Ezekiel, who witnesses to a useless God. “Ministry,” Brueggemann writes - contemporary minstry - “has become exceedingly utilitarian. All of us are too busy being useful. The more there is worry about professional and institutional survival, the more useful we seek to be…. God refuses to be useful. God’s ministers might ask about the temptation to excessive usefulness when the call may in fact be to study and witness to the unencumbered holiness of God that places everything on the human side of reality in jeopardy. Such a notion of ministry is frightening,” because it witnesses to “the holiness of God [as] a reality that jeopardises.”

This - in Jeremiah, Ezekiel - and Brueggemann - is theological critique on the themes of judgement and hope for a church in exile. It is what I miss in so many of the ecclesiastical panaceas that make the rounds. Catch my drift now? I don’t think I’m being obscure, nor should you need a dictionary, but if you do, trust me, it won’t hurt you: it’s a reference book, not pornography! ;)

6

PamBG 11.29.08 at 10:49 am

As for Pam’s tetchiness

Hmm….Pot. Kettle. Black.

Whatever.

7

PamBG 11.29.08 at 11:10 am

OK, sorry, that last post was tetchy.

I’m probably still too angry to express myself properly….

One of the reasons I’ve become loathe to have discussions in church as part of worship or to open up the floor to comments after the sermon is that, no matter what the subject is, the discussion always, always, always deteriorates into ‘Isn’t the world going to hell in a handbasket and wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone was good Christians like us?’

Meanwhile, in private, people tell good news stories of God working in their lives to me and to a handful of other people. But these are not widely shared within the congregation. It seems to me that if we could share these good news stories with each other, we might actually have a better chance of discerning where God is in our everyday lives.

I agree with you (I think, because I still don’t really understand what you want) that being faithful to God should be our first priority. And I also agree (I think…) that the church has, in the past, been more of a social organisation than a worshipping people and that therefore bums on pews shouldn’t be our first priority. I disagree, though, that there is anything wrong or complacent in sharing good news stories of churches where God is working.

8

Tony Buglass 11.29.08 at 1:24 pm

Kim: “What a lexiphobic lot! ”

Sesquipedalianist!

9

Richard 11.29.08 at 3:48 pm

I’m looking forward to getting that one into a conversation, Tony :)

10

Beth 11.29.08 at 7:14 pm

Guys, Google is your friend! Look up things like “metanarrative” and “diaspora” and you’ll learn a lot, not only about what Kim is trying to say, but also about contemporary theological and cultural ideas.

A metanarrative is basically a theory - a way of explaining the things that happen and have happened in our cultures. An example that Wikipedia gives is feminism, which sees the development of history as a narrative of the oppression and suppression of women by men - the ways that cultures set themselves up and the things that societies do are symptoms of this patriarchal, sexist attitude.

Personally, I’m not a fan of metanarratives - they try to take a huge range of cultures, ideas, and events, and box them off according to a single point-of-view. YMMV. But I think that perhaps what Kim is getting at is that we now have this way of looking at the world which places the fragmentation of ecclesiastical structures at the centre of our understanding - but despite that, we don’t look at it theologically enough. We see social causes for it and it’s easier to fall back on them than to accept that the Churches may be doing something wrong.

Kim, correct me if I’ve misrepresented you…

11

Fat Prophet 11.29.08 at 7:28 pm

Thanks Beth for your excellent definitions of those words, perhaps it may be helpful if Kim was a little less multisyllabic and more brachysyllabic, especially for us thick working class Black Country lads

12

PamBG 11.29.08 at 10:37 pm

I know what ‘diaspora’ and ‘metanarrative’ mean, and what Kim says still doesn’t make sense.

What wrong metanarrative does the church have? What is the right one? How do we get there? What does it mean in practical terms for anyone’s life as a Christian that the church is in disapora? What does that look like? How might we react to it? Why is telling good news of God working in the life of the Church an unfaithful response?

People have to be able to respond in discipleship at the end of the day and that requires a fairly concrete vision. (IMO, anyway)

13

Tony Buglass 11.29.08 at 10:44 pm

My reading of “the church in diaspora” is that we are in opposition rather than in the Establishment. Especially when Kim refers to the Constantinian settlement. So we should be on the side of the poor and excluded, rather than the settled classes. Amos rides again!

I can live with that, except for the political angle which suggests that it is always easier to be in opposition thaan in Government, because you never have to actually take responsibility.

14

PamBG 11.30.08 at 12:02 am

My reading of “the church in diaspora” is that we are in opposition rather than in the Establishment. Especially when Kim refers to the Constantinian settlement. So we should be on the side of the poor and excluded, rather than the settled classes. Amos rides again!

OK, fair enough. I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing, though.

I’m not sure Kim and I are talking about the same things at all. I’m tired of in constructive criticism that doesn’t put forward any vision or ideas about how to get anywhere but just seems to throw cold water on other people’s ideas and successes.

I’m afraid I really don’t understand the theology being the concept that sharing good news is an unfaithful thing to do. But I’ll let it go because, from experience, there’s really no point trying to have a discussion.

15

PamBG 11.30.08 at 12:03 am

My reading of “the church in diaspora” is that we are in opposition rather than in the Establishment. Especially when Kim refers to the Constantinian settlement. So we should be on the side of the poor and excluded, rather than the settled classes. Amos rides again!

OK, fair enough. I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing, though.

I’m not sure Kim and I are talking about the same things at all. I’m tired of non-constructive criticism that doesn’t put forward any vision or ideas about how to get anywhere but just seems to throw cold water on other people’s ideas and successes.

I’m afraid I really don’t understand the theology being the concept that sharing good news is an unfaithful thing to do. But I’ll let it go because, from experience, there’s really no point trying to have a discussion.

16

Beth 11.30.08 at 12:20 am

Pam, why do you bother participating here if you’re so sure that “there’s really no point trying to have a discussion”? This seems to be your response every time you read something you don’t like, and it’s really mean-spirited. You put yourself on some kind of moral highground whilst simultaneously refusing actually to discuss your ideas.

Personally, I think you’ve misunderstood what Kim has to say entirely. Yet you jump in and do what you so often accuse others of doing - having a go at someone for something that they didn’t actually say! If you’d ever been to one of Kim’s Sunday services, in which every week he asks the congregation to share their personal and family joys and successes, you might realise that your interpretation of his words has to be wrong.

If you’re keen to share the good news of Christianity, how about developing a style of debate and discourse which actually reflects that good news rather than embodying the stereotype of the Christian who won’t engage with anyone who thinks differently?

17

Richard 11.30.08 at 8:22 am

Cool it peeps - remember we’re all friends here!

18

PamBG 11.30.08 at 9:16 am

Beth, I’m just going to leave your post to speak for itself which it does very loudly

19

PamBG 11.30.08 at 9:44 am

I’m making no personal accusations about Kim or what he does in church.

To me, the conversation was going something like this:
Richard: Do you think it’s complacent to tell good news stories about fellow Christians and about the successes of congregations in Methodism?
Pam: No, not at all, it can be really helpful.

At which point, it seemed to me, that Kim hit us with a lot of theology-speak about how wrong we all were and how out of touch we all were with God and how we’d not done sufficient theological reflection.

I make no accusations about what Kim does in his church and I’d be pretty stupid if I even pretended that I had a clue since I’ve never been to his church. (I’m not so mad that I think I can pronounce on things I’ve never seen, Beth.)

It’s great that there is a lot of encouragement where Kim is. There isn’t a lot of encouragement of the churches around here and I don’t think that the churches are smug and complacent either. They are faithful, struggling people, and they could use some encouragement. Lots of people are happy to pour cold water on any new idea but only a handful are prepared to say: ‘I think God might be in this; let’s try it.’

20

Kim 11.30.08 at 5:00 pm

Hi Pam,

That tetchy tone of yours again. I mean, you write of my “theology-speak” (with which I “hit” you) - and you speak with an obvious combination of frustration and irritation. What do you mean by this Orwellian-sounding phrase? You say you understand all the words I use, so presumably it has nothing to do with my vocabulary.

(By the way - a general point for all - I was taught that when I read an author who uses a word I am not familiar with, I should assume she has used it for a good reason, and that I should look it up in the dictionary. Thus will I do her the courtesy of trying to understand what she is saying to me, and, as a bonus, I will enlarge my vocabulary. That, it seems to me, is good practice. And if anyone tells me I am being elitist, I reply that such an anti-intellectual attitude used to enrage my Welsh steel-working-class father-in-law, who believed that socialism is not only about the improvement of our material social conditions, it is also about the development of our minds.)

So if my “theology-speak” is not about vocabulary, what is it about? Surely not that I speak theologically as such - only a jerk could say such a thing, and you are not a jerk.

(Another btw - that’s what gets me the most about your thread here - and elsewhere: I’m sure we actually think quite alike on most issues, but I seem so easily to get on your tits, and then you go off on one, thinking, no doubt, “What a jerk!”)

Another possibility: do you mean by my “theology-speak” something like that what I write is difficult or demanding? Well, some things are difficult and demanding. In fact, Rowan Williams writes - and I agree - that the “‘making difficult’ … what the gospel says in Scripture and tradition,” i.e. insisting that it “does not instantly and effortlessly make sense, is perhaps one of the most fundamental tasks for theology.”

But, no, I don’t think that is what’s going on here either. Because I don’t think what I’ve said here is hard to understand. Nor - a different thing again - obscure. Basically, I think Beth is right: you understand what I am saying, but rather than respond to it, you impatiently dismiss it by dissing it as - “theology-speak”. Except for one more thing: I don’t think you really do understand what I am saying at all. You have certainly not exercised “interpretive charity”. After all, I began my first comment by saying quite explicitly that “I take Pam’s point about ‘constructive’ criticism and the need for mutual encouragement.” Only then did I go on to say that sharing “good” stories, while necessary, is not sufficient to the dismal condition the church is in, which, I suggest, must be analysed theologically - in terms of the divine judgement - and then met with repentance. Then in my second comment I tried to substantiate my point biblically. Yet you take what I intended to be a critical yet helpful contribution (indeed helpful precisely because it is critical) to a serious discussion as so much rubbishing about what pastors are trying to do in difficult local situations, implicitly associating me with the “Lots of people [who] are happy to pour cold water on any new idea.” Where did that come from?

Finally, your “faithful, struggling people” - they are my people too. But I am able to talk with these wonderful folk whom God has given me to love about what I have tried to raise in my two comments. They may find what I have to say hard - but not hard to understand - and worth thinking and praying about because it is neither obviously nonsensical nor meant nihilistically. And because it’s not air-fairy either (another possibe meaning of you “theology-speak”?). It has to do, for example, with issues of war and peace - as I urge my congregation to consider radical pacifism as inherent in Christian discipleship; with attitudes towards “outsiders” (whether economic migrants, or asylum seekers, or the Swansea Muslim community - or homosexuals) - as I remind them of the dominical command of hospitality to “strangers” that transcends nation, or religion, or sexuality; or, for that matter, with the point of being a United Reformed Church in Sketty - especially when the Methodists are right across the road! Golly, once in a while, we even try out new things!

Finally, just because I can speak harshly about the church doesn’t mean I don’t love her. As Augustine said, the church is a whore - but she’s still my mother.

21

PamBG 11.30.08 at 9:29 pm

Kim - Thanks for answering.

I’ve actually tried to communicate what I mean by ‘theology-speak’. It’s actually possible to understand the word a person uses but not the gist of what they are trying to say; which is, I guess, the problem you’re having with me.

To me, you do make a lot of delphic comments; perhaps Richard understands what you’re saying because he knows you in person. I don’t know you in person and I can’t make those connections. As an illustration, if you tell me that ‘I have the wrong metanarrative’ I can understand the sentence but I’m still going to think ‘What does he think my metanarrative is? Why does he think my metanarrative is wrong? And what does he think ‘the right metanarrative’ is?’

Here’s an illustration of stuff that makes sense to me. You write at the end of this post: It has to do, for example, with issues of war and peace - as I urge my congregation to consider radical pacifism as inherent in Christian discipleship; with attitudes towards “outsiders” (whether economic migrants, or asylum seekers, or the Swansea Muslim community - or homosexuals) - as I remind them of the dominical command of hospitality to “strangers” that transcends nation, or religion, or sexuality;

And that, to me, is useful concrete stuff that helps me begin to understand what you’re saying and where you’re coming from.

Two different people could mean very different things by ‘The Church is in diaspora’. I have no idea why you think the church is in disapora; I don’t know whether you think that this is a good thing or a bad thing; I don’t know whether you believe that it’s a punishment from God (as many of the OT narratives suggest) or a consequence of our own choices. I don’t know whether you see ‘church in disapora’ as an opportunity or threat. I don’t know whether you think the church would benefit from staying in disapora or if it should try to get out of disapora as quickly as possible. Does that make sense of just some of the things that I don’t understand?

22

Kim 11.30.08 at 11:33 pm

Thanks, Pam. A “constructive” reply for sure. One good turn …

I referred to ecclesial “dispossession” and “diaspora” as “radical yet promising”. These are good things.

Dispossession should characterise both the church and the Christian. Like the related “poverty”, it is a beatitude with both material and spiritual dimensions (Luke 6:20/Matthew 5:3). The Christological paradigm is Philippians 2:5-11. Dispossession includes a lack of concern with maintaining either personal or eclesial identity at all costs, with understanding all as gift, with being fearlessly vulnerable and foolishly flexible, with refusing to stay in control, police the perimeters, etc.

Diaspora refers to a way of being church: as tent rather than temple, homeless in principle (I’m not against church buildings, but the useful easily become the idolatrous - at least in Wales it does!), fundamentally missionary (mission constitutes the church), so always on the move, crossing borders, thinking more tactically than strategically, subversively challenging ad hoc “the way things are done” culturally and politically, and so on.

But, finally, to go back to my point, one way of seeing the euro-decline of the church is in terms of God’s judgement on a people that has not lived the way of dispossession and diaspora - the Constantinian church. But, biblically, judgement is rehabilitative, it is for the sake of the future and therefore the ground of hope, and so provides space for new opportunites of faithfulness.

I hope that’s clarifying and helpful.

23

Olive Morgan 12.01.08 at 8:55 am

I continue to be amazed that such a discussion should arise out of Richard’s post wanting to share the Evangelical Alliance’s good news stories! We had a quite different discussion over on Dave Faulkner’s blog ‘Big Circumstance’.

24

tortoise 12.01.08 at 9:27 am

Kim -

… thinking more tactically than strategically…

Could you unpack this please? Not sure I see the distinction.

25

PamBG 12.01.08 at 12:17 pm

Thanks for the clarification, Kim. I’m just going to shut up now.

26

Kim 12.01.08 at 4:51 pm

Hi Tortoise,

Strategic thinking focuses on the the “big picture” and long-term goals, and operates - or likes to think it operates - from a position of posession, strength, control, and predictablity, organising campaigns, looking for victory: it is the modus operandi of the churches of Christendom. Management theorists tend to talk about the fundamental importance of having a strategy, with tactics as a means to the greater pre-established goal.

Tactical thinking, however, focuses on the local and ad hoc, not worrying about a future which will inevitably be determined by the past, thinking rather in terms of advent, God’s future which is coming to meet us, thus eschewing all that dreadful nonsense about “building” the kingdom; sees power as a weakness and weakness as a strength; plans guerrilla warfare, not trying to seize and hold on to territory, ducking and diving, hitting and running, risking, failing, losing, risking riskier: it should be the modus operandi of the post-Constantinian church.

27

Richard 12.01.08 at 6:01 pm

In the words of St Dusty Springfield: “To live my days instead of counting my years”

Something like that.

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