A Defence of Christmas

posted in: Tony Thompson 2

Some of those we love and work alongside are passionate about not celebrating Christmas, not having Christmas trees or decorations. Some mark the incarnation of our Lord at different time, notably at the Jewish feast of Tabernacles, others don’t mark this at any special time. For example the Jesus Army say, “The popular Christian festivals such as Christmas are not celebrated, on the quite accurate grounds that they have Pagan origins. (One of the reasons that Christianity took root throughout Europe during the Dark Ages was its habit of taking over local Pagan festivals and sacred sites, adapting the customs of the Winter Solstice into Christmas, and of the Spring festival into Easter, and building churches over ancient wells and springs.)” This is a historic position amongst reformed people, the Puritans shunned Christmas and it was against the law to celebrate Christmas Day following the civil war.

 

Maybe you are wondering why have a tree and mark the festival? Or maybe you wonder how to answer those who bring objections to celebrating Christmas? I want to spend a few lines making a defence of our practice. In the end this is not something that is essential to our salvation so is a matter of individual conscience. It does bring out important principles that are worth considering.

 

One of the missionary tactics of the early church was to look for points of contact between the culture they were going to and the Gospel. So when evangelising Jewish communities Christians would show how the festivals of the Jewish year pointed to Christ. When evangelising Gentile communities that would not work because these communities had no knowledge of the Jewish Festivals. So when Paul went to Athens, he found an altar to an “unknown god” Paul used this point of contact, along with quotes from Greek poets and philosophers, to preach the gospel. He encouraged Titus to do the same in Crete, quoting local poets. Imagine how modern Christians would react to Paul’s sermon? He quoted no scripture, he used a pagan altar as an illustration and referenced pagan writers.

 

Most northern hemisphere cultures held a mid-winter festival, the early Church missionaries used this festival as a point of contact. Most of these festivals were held around the time of the winter solstice and called for the return of the sun. Christians used these festivals to preach that the true Light of the world had come amongst us. Like Paul in Athens they used that which was familiar to people to bring the gospel message. They subverted local traditions to convey truth. As the Jesus Army acknowledge this was a powerful evangelistic tool, it was using these means that the gospel was brought to Europe.
What about today? We live in a secular nation that holds a mid-winter celebration, we continue to take those customs people are familiar with to preach a gospel message. Like the early missionaries and Paul himself, we are inserting a message into a festival and we compete with other stories that are told at the same time. Christmas is a point of contact with our society, an opportunity to teach truth, in my view we should take it. Use the Christmas tree to teach of God’s everlasting grace, use the darkness to teach about the true Light who came into the world and show to the world true joy that Jesus gives.

 

So, at Christmas and at other times, we could be pure, absolutely right, so right we become dead right enslaved again by law, or we can joyfully seek to share our faith with a world that is dying. I know what I want to do!

 

Written by Tony Thompson

Tony Thompson

Exploring Growth: Prayer in the context of growth – the Lord’s Prayer

We believe that God has been speaking to us about growth, growth in influence and numerical growth. He has also been speaking to us about the need to make changes to accommodate and facilitate growth. However, as we have seen, it is God who causes things to grow. The best we can do is work with God, trying not to get in the way. Prayer becomes even more important than normal. Prayer declares our total reliance on God; prayer is how we come close to God; prayer is how we hear from God.

The best place to start when talking about prayer is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. Luke 11v1-4, Matthew 6v9-13. However it is also difficult to say something brief about this prayer. I will try to be succinct!

Firstly Jesus taught the disciples to pray this prayer because they asked him to. See Luke. They had obviously noticed how regularly Jesus would go away to a quiet place by himself and spend time talking to his heavenly Father. This was unusual and distinctive. They wanted to know how to do it themselves. If we are looking for motivation to pray we can’t do better than follow the example of Jesus.

Other things worthy of note are –

  1. Jesus starts by saying that Jesus is “Our Father” not “My Father”. Even though we pray alone there is a corporate element about our relationship with God. He isn’t just my Father, or Jesus’ Father – he is our Father.
  2. We should address the person we are praying to, see him, consider him, picture him as Father as we prayer. Not as our experience of earthly Father, good or bad as that may be, but as the picture of the ideal loving, intimate Father. The Father that human Fathers are meant to emulate.
  3. Our focus on prayer should be on God rather than ourselves and our needs, especially at the start of our prayer. Our desire should be that God’s name will be honoured and glorified, that His will is done. We suspect His will is for us to grow in influence and numerically, lets pray for His will to be done.
  4. We should be looking and asking for our basic needs to be met, our daily bread, without that we will not be able to do God’s will.
  5. Similarly we need to ensure that we ask for and receive forgiveness as this will impact our ability to do God’s will. As will the fact that we haven’t forgiven others.
  6. Temptation is something else we want to avoid as that too gets in the way of doing the Father’s will.

Let us prayer as Jesus did, as regularly as he did, and focusing on the Fathers will rather than ourselves!

 

This links with the sermon preached on Sunday 20th November which can be found by clicking here

Written by Tony Thompson

Tony Thompson

Growth Pains: Acts 6:1-7

We are part of what is called the “restoration movement”, a movement seeking to restore New Testament Christianity to the modern church.

However, New Testament Christianity was not without its problems, we can’t assume that church life will ever be trouble free. The church in Corinth had problems with drunkenness, sexual immorality, divisions, even abuse of the poor.

We can despair of the modern church, despair of the history of the church across the centuries, I have often done both. We must remember the NT church was not perfect, either. We can long for the church in the UK to experience the growth of the early church, as I do. However, if we experienced that growth, it may not feel as we would expect. It may bring its own difficulties. That was the case in the New Testament church as described in Acts 6.

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.

Grumbling and complaining clearly not just a 21st Century phenomenon. Part of everyday church life since the early days! Grumblings and complaints are as old as Moses – what Jews did when in slavery and then when released from slavery.

The context here is that widows needed support, part of the structure of early church life. Hellenistic Jews, those from a Greek background felt they were disadvantaged compared to widows from a Hebrew background.  

Growth put strains on the church, growth pains. The tension was along racial lines, a volatile thing in a multi-cultural church.

We are seeking to build a church that embraces many cultures, like this church in Jerusalem. Which creates greater potential for grumbling, especially during periods of growth!

We should not be surprised by complaints and grumbling. We should expect them – we are growing, change is happening, we have lots of different cultures. I can’t believe there are no issues. Mention them, don’t hide them, don’t sweep them under the carpet.

So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

The leadership didn’t get defensive, they recognised there was a problem and did something about it. Although they only knew about the problem because people told them.

We expect difficulties to be doctrinal, they rarely are, they are usually very mundane and practical. Paul and Barnabus parted company not for doctrinal problems, but over whether to take John Mark with them or not.

People can feel overlooked, undervalued, under represented. This is exaggerated in times of growth, which puts pressure on structures developed when the community is smaller. Unless dealt with growth, momentum will stall.

It is not surprising that the prophetic words we have received about growth also talk about the need for change, restructuring, a change in our expectations of church.

The issue was practical, the response administrative, organisational.

 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

They chose Greek people, as the issue was racial – bringing Greek believers into a multiracial leadership.

Leadership had not been representative, a real vulnerability. Dealing with these practical issues removed barriers to growth.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

Application.

As we grow we need to change structures, how we do things. It often happens after the event! When done, growth can continue.

We have already identified some changes that need to be made –

an acceptance that no one person can know everyone in our church. We are used to knowing everyone and many have tried to do this even as we have grown. It is nearly impossible at 150, totally impossible at 200.

an acceptance that no one person can support and care for everyone. I cannot know everyone; I can’t care personally for everyone. I find that difficult and have tried and failed to do so even at 150 attending. It is impossible as we grow further. Unless I focus on identifying, releasing and supporting others to care and lead it will result in people feeling let down and me feeling I have let people down.

an acceptance that not everyone can know the church leader and have a close relationship with them.

an acceptance that many people are gifted and able to take increased responsibility. This is evident on a Sunday morning, but also at other times. I need to support and encourage this, rather than taking back things.

an acceptance that we need to do things differently and better. This is already happening in some areas such as welcome and communications. It needs to also happen in other areas.

As in the early church we need people of all cultures stepping up, taking responsibility, coming into leadership. We need to change our structures.

 

This links with the sermon preached on Sunday 13th November which can be found by clicking here

Written by Tony Thompson

Tony Thompson

God is calling us to grow in numbers and influence

In a previous blog (found by clicking here) I shared prophetic words we have received as a church which we are taking very seriously and appear to be suggesting that we should expect God to grow us numerically and in influence.

In this blog, I am trying to weigh these words, which is what we are told to do.

When we look at scripture we discover that healthy bodies, including churches, grow.

e.g. 1 Corinthians 3v5-9.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labour. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

God gives growth, we work with him. Things are meant to grow.

e.g.  Parables of the Kingdom. Matthew 13v31-33

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Obviously, these parables are about expecting growth beyond the church growing numerically, they are about influence. We should expect the kingdom, where God reigns, to keep growing. However, we should include growth in Christian community.

Clearly growth is a good thing, a sign of health, hence the consistent use of the metaphors of plants.

Historically the church has grown numerically and in influence.

This was the experience of early church, see Acts 2v46, 47; 6v7; 12v24. It has been true ever since and it is the experience in most parts of the world today.

We need to keep in mind that our experience in the UK and the west generally over the last few decades is unusual and should not be thought of as the norm.

The suggestion that the days of Christianity and religion generally are numbered is not supported by the facts. It comes from a narrow, secular perspective, we should not allow ourselves to be caught up in the lie. Anyway, we believe in a God who raises the dead!

Growth is not painless; it brings growth pains.

This is very clear from Acts 6, but is shown throughout the book of Acts, where growth occurs in the midst of difficulties, especially persecution.

There are barriers to growth that need to be overcome. More on this next week.

Conclusions we can draw.

We should desire growth, numerically and in influence as a church and as individuals within the church. God has been telling us this will happen and it is consistent with the general thrust of scripture.

This should not be in competition or at the expense of other churches, people just moving from other churches.

It should not be numerical growth at the expense of influence (changing society). It is not just about more people coming to church, it is about an increasing number individuals being equipped and sent out from Hope into the world.

However, we cannot be complacent; God gives the growth but we work with him. We need to address the fact that we haven’t consistently grown numerically over the last few years, we need to do this openly and honesty. We also need to do it with faith and trust in our God, being willing to pay any price required.

 

This links with the sermon preached on Sunday 7th November which can be found by clicking here

Written by Tony Thompson

Tony Thompson

Baby Steps – Part 2

So last time I talked about not using ‘baby steps’ as an excuse to delay a change. It seems that God wasn’t done talking to me about ‘baby steps’ and the other morning I found myself waking with further thoughts on this phrase.

When babies learn to walk they are determined. They overcome many obstacles… The biggest being falling down. Walking involves learning to balance, overcoming fear, it engages the whole body, the mind, muscles, eyes, bottom, feet, even mouth (they laugh and squeal with delight at their sense of accomplishment). They discover. Often the desire to discover drives them on, the plate left on the table, the toy just out of reach. Even the severely disabled will keep on trying to move.

We can think of taking baby steps as being simple, relaxed, slow going and using little energy. An easier way. In fact they are so much more.
Real baby steps take us on a journey of change. They are decisive. They set out to achieve. They are an adventure that uses the whole of our being.

I believe that God is asking us to look again at our lives and where we are with Him. He wants us to take real baby steps of determination and faith that involve the whole of our being. He wants us to discover all that He has for us. To stand up and learn to balance and walk with him. To overcome the fear of falling down. To stop thinking of ourselves as helpless children, or babies. For those that have learnt to toddle he says you are not confined to the playpen. The door is open, get out and discover the world He has for you. Learn to walk and run, skip and play.
It is time we ate more solids and stopped regressing or running back to the safe space (with our blanky and bottle) . He will catch us when we fall down. He will light our path. He has good things for us. He gives us purpose. ‘In him I live and move and have my being.’ He bids us go.

 

Written by Jane Reynolds

Jane

Baby Steps

Every so often I find that a word or phrase will jump out at me. It’s often a phrase that I have used. When it starts to resonate and even shout at me from someone else’s lips, a podcast or download then I find it’s best to take notice and find out what God is trying to say. This week it was the phrase “baby steps”.

‘So what is wrong with “baby steps”?’ I asked as the phrase began to hit a sour note. It’s good to make changes slowly and it’s a phrase that denotes growth. It is wise to walk slowly at times and not rush into things. When things are new we don’t want to go too far or commit too much and get hurt, hurting others in the process. There is wisdom in “baby steps”.

BUT, and it is a big but, be careful, I have realised that this phrase can be used as an excuse. If God is asking you to walk away from sin then do not use “baby steps” as an excuse.  ‘leave your life of sin’ Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery (John 8) . Preachers please think before you use “baby steps” to make a hard message more palatable (yes that was the final clashing note that got my attention).

We lie to ourselves and to others if we think “baby steps” will help when a decisive decision and change is required. Perhaps we don’t like what our boss is suggesting; what a health professional is recommending or our Father in heaven is talking to us about. Perhaps it seems radical and hard. Granted there are situations where “small steps would be wise” but we are not babies learning to walk again. When our Lord and Saviour convicts us of sin, recommends a course of action or gives us a direction we need to learn to turn with total conviction and walk away onto the recommended path. Joseph fled from Pharaohs wife, he didn’t walk. This was a new situation for him. He didn’t consider trying to argue with her or hanging around to see what happened. He turned round and removed himself as fast as he could. He followed God’s instructions, trusting in the wisdom of His word. Baby steps would just not have had the same outcome.

What are we really talking about? Submission is the word that comes to mind. When we submit to the will of God, when we acknowledge the wisdom of health professionals or the authority of those we work for,  we are submitting: laying down our ideas and our right to run our lives our way.

Being disciples of Jesus we are uniquely positioned, poised in submission; ready to take on all that Jesus has for us. Let us remain ready to step decisively in a different direction or take on new instructions when correctly asked of us. Let us not hesitate or hold back just because something is new or uncomfortable. Let us be honest with ourselves and others, and may “baby steps” not be an excuse to linger from change.

 

Written by Jane Reynolds

Jane

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