Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Love Wins...or does the church just lose it? (again)

I find it deeply ironic that most of the critics of Bell's new book haven't actually read it yet. I'll keep my powder dry till I've had a chance to read it.

I agree that if there is a universalism prevalent in this particular book, then I would have a problem with it. All I'm saying is I haven't read it, and by Justin Taylor's own admission, neither has he (in totality). So I think it's a bit premature to be slating Rob Bell, a brother in Christ, without knowing the facts.

I have watched the clip and have to say that I found it interesting and intriguing. It is set up in a way to sell the book. I am just cynical enough to believe that even Christian publishing organisations have bought into a marketing strategy aimed at creating a 'storm' of controversy/interest which gets people talking about the product. (which they hope to convert to sales). I am not condoning this, by the way, just that's the way it is.

Rob Bell asks questions. That's what he does. That's no bad thing. I ask questions all the time. Why does God answer some people's prayers for healing one way and others by letting them die? Why do certain things in the Bible appear to make no sense? Why does God use death so severely and vengeance so prominently in how he deals with his enemies? Answer: I have no clue.

But it doesn't make me love God any less or trust him any less. That, in a nutshell, is what faith is. Trusting without necessarily understanding.

However, it does make it hard for those of us who seek to relate who this great God is to those who do not yet have that faith. Or who have A faith but not a steadfast one as yet.

The questions Rob Bell poses in the clip seem to be starting from that premise; of asking some of the difficult questions. I think one of the reasons his profile has grown in recent years is because he has not been afraid of the 'sacred cows'; he has been willing to ask some difficult questions and has done the hard work then of trying to make them accessible to your average church-goer. This is what the whole Nooma series was dealing with.

I am not prepared, not having read the book, to shoot the guy down and write him off as a heretic. The conservative wing of the church has always been too quick to do this with people who view the world from a sideways perspective, when often, if their words and teachings are thoroughly scrutinised, they are often much more orthodox and true to Scripture than some westernised, modern approaches to church and faith, practices and rituals, authority and hierarchy.

I will be interested to read the book and will, I am quite sure, have many conversations about it in the months to come.

I hope you don't think I'm being sniffy or ungracious. I just have seen too many times when people think they have to choose a position on something like this; then discover that actually there was much more to it than appeared on the surface, or in this case, a publicity video.

When we come to read anything we should read it with our minds, and more importantly, our Bibles, open.

On the specifics of the Rob Bell book, I think the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' may not be a bad one. He seems to be doing the very thing some of his critics are encouraging, i.e. accentuating the positive nature of God's Love and salvation. However, I still (!) haven't read the book so will refrain from passing personal judgement on the book. By the way, in any personal judgement I do have I will fight my personal sinful tendency to judge the individual and try to stick to an objective critique of the book. So glad the judging is for someone more qualified than me!

The first direct quote I've been able to track down from the actual book seems to completely shoot down the notion which is being virally spread that Bell rejects Hell and creates a God who is standing in heaven welcoming all and sundry:

"... In speaking of the expansive, extraordinary, infinite love of God there is always the danger of neglecting the very real consequences of God's love. Namely God's desire and intention to see things become everything they were intended to be. For this to unfold, God must say about a number of acts and to those who would continue to do them 'Not here you won't.'

Love demands freedom. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God's ways for us. We can have all the hell we want."

Yes, Bell is guilty. But at this stage all he is guilty of is using apparent deliberate provocativeness. I think this is an oft-used tactic in his previous books, podcasts, Noomas and tours. I don't necessarily dislike this tactic. It could even be argued Jesus himself used similar tactics when telling some of his parables. These can be the hooks to entice the fish. Knowing what I know of Bell, he rarely waffles and every word will have been carefully crafted and weighed.

As far as what makes something controversial, in the case of western church, it's usually Fox News and their followers! The republican right of America are coiled like springs to jump all over stuff like this, as it attacks (or at least they believe it does) their closely-guarded grip on all kingdom values. They are the Christian Gospel's equivalent to the Tower of London's Beefeaters, duty bound to defend her from any 'attack', especially from the pernicious emergent church.

It reminds me somewhat of the storm which arose out of Lennon's 'Beatles are bigger than Jesus' misquotes. The highly strung Right moral majority leap all over something without knowing (or seeming to care about) the facts. Why let the truth spoil a good story, right?

I think the phraseology he uses in the video clip regarding Jesus coming to save us from God is a really interesting take on how the big picture of the gospel message is perceived and should make us all examine the language and tone with which we preach. If this is the message people are equating with the Christian church, as Bell says, no wonder they are so disenfranchised.

The danger of course is not necessarily from Rob Bell himself but from the ultra-liberals for whom the opposite danger is true. That they will accept unthinkingly the notion of 'no hell' as it panders to the concept of 'it'll be all right on the night' and at the end of the day God will welcome all. The danger that this pre-book-launch controversy will be enough for them to hang their watered-down hats on. Of course, my argument would then be a step of logic. No hell...no heaven?

Incidentally, I don't just read books I agree with. I'm always more worried and suspicious about people who claim to have all the answers and who have stopped asking questions. Questions are healthy. It's what we do with the answers that's important.

Yes, I'll read the book, but I'm in no rush. I've got a stack of more interesting things to read first. However, I hope people don't 'assassinate' Rob Bell without availing themselves of facts first.

In what part of the video clip does Bell 'teach' anything? His understanding of what hell is or isn't, of what God does or doesn't do, is not there...it's simply not there.

I worry that the right-wing conservatives will do their usual and overreact without the facts, thus creating much harmful in-fighting. I mean the title is 'Love Wins'. If youread the actual quote from the book, not the publisher's blurb, there's no denial of hell or eternal punishment in that.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Days 8 & 9

Well that's it. The bags are packed; email addresses are being swapped and people are getting ready to go home. The week in Emmeloord is coming to and end and for this group of young people it is a week full of memories which will last the rest of their life.

Yesterday was another highlight of the week and there are some photos of our day above.

In the morning we went to Urk, a unique village in Holland, only 12km from where we have been based. It is unique because it has its own culture and language and is seen by many Dutch people as being almost a separate community. The people of Urk themselves have a strong independent streak and also have a strong sense of faith, though this tends to be strongly legalistic and exclusive.

In the morning we enjoyed a fantastic boat trip out into some fairly choppy waters which meant some of our party got a good soaking from the higher waves. This gave us a great opportunity to see how picturesque the town of Urk is. It attracts plenty of tourists and on a hot sunny day like we had, we were able to see it at its absolute best. We enjoyed a foot-tour of the village and then we had lunch at the beautiful home of Wilma, one of the local church members.

In the afternoon we spent time in a local park doing some evangelism amongst the young people who were playing football and skateboarding there. Many good conversations were struck up and the gospel was clearly shared.

In the evening we held a farewell barbecue and some of the people we had contact with through the week came along; this gave more opportunities to share with these people. One lady who we had met at the summermarket on Friday told how she'd gone to church on Sunday for the first time in a long while and had been unable to stop crying during the service as she was struck by the truth contained in the songs that were being sung. Two boys who we had met at Urk in the afternoon cycled the 12km to attend. Three Moslem boys who we had chatted to at the football cage two days ago came despite the fact that it was the start of Ramadan and they could eat and drink nothing. These people are hungry for more than food.

We gave gifts and said thanks to our host families and then began the job of packing and tidying.

This morning there is a realisation that the week is almost over and people are quite tired and ready for their own beds. However, they also don't want the week to end and I hope this positive experience of mission will inspire them to think seriously about the future and how they can servce God. As one of the teenagers has said this week, 'I want to do more of this evangelism when I get back to the UK.'


Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Days 6 and 7

Well, it's been a busy 48 hours here in Emmeloord. Yesterday we met some asylum seekers in the morning and heard about their experiences since coming to Holland to flee their homelands of Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. In the afternoon the team helped with a children's club and this went down well with the local children. After a busy week tiredness is evident among the team and energy levels are taking a hit. In the evenings we have had a short time of worship, teaching, sharing and praying together called 'Throne Room' and it's good to end the day together remembering why we're here and who we're serving.

In the mornings too, we have some small group time and everyone is encouraged to find some private space to spend some time alone with God, the Bible and prayer. This helps to bring focus to each day and helps people leave aside any little things which may be troubling them.

Today we have spent the day in the poorest area of town serving the community with litter picking, gardening and using the football cage with the local youngsters. There have been some good evangelistic conversations again today and we are trusting that God will bless these seeds which have been sown.

On a humorous note, I managed to fall off my bike yesterday which brought great mirth and amusement to the group, who showed their care for my hurt derriere by laughing at me. Oh well! At least no-one got a picture.

Tomorrow is our last full day before we head home on Thursday. We're spending it in the fishing village of Urk and hope to do some evangelism there amongst the local families, weather permitting.

Thanks again for all your prayers.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Days 4 and 5

I never got the opportunity to blog yesterday so this is a bit of a doubler. Yesterday we went into the city of Utrecht and had some time off. We enjoyed an hour's cruise round the city's canal system and were glad to be under cover as the weather was of the British summer variety, i.e. rain. This gave the group the opportunity to wear their newly acquired Dutch ponchos (see pictures).

Utrecht's centre was extremely busy with many market traders and a bustling shopping centre. We have learnt that Dutch people have a sixth sense of where the mad speedy cyclists are going to appear from and which direction they are heading. We have yet to get this sense.

After a good (but wet) afternoon, we headed back to Emmeloord, stopping en route to have a McDonald's for tea.

We spent the evening preparing for our participation today's church services.

This morning the group was divided into two and went to two different churches:

The Fountain (which has been our base for the week) which has about 500 attending, and

The Rainbow (much smaller with about 100).

Everyone particated in sharing something of the evangelistic work we've been involved in/ which is still to come. From Bethany, Peter gave a demonstration of some of the techniques we've been using, and Aaron shared some of his testimony. Everyone did very well. Thanks for your prayers.

This afternoon we are hanging out with some of the local Christian young people and as I type there is an international table-tennis tournament taking place!

It is Peter's 15th birthday today, and though he doesn't know it yet, there will be a cake and a card later!

Some of the team are extremely tired and struggling with various bugs and ailments so please pray that they would get over them quickly and get the strength for the rest of the week.

Signing off for now.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Day 3

Wow what a day! This was the day when the evangelism training of yesterday began to be put into action. After our team Bible study time at Heelal this morning, we went to the main street of Emmeloord to work at our stall among all the street traders who were part of the busy place that was Emmeloord's annual Summermarket. Right among all the stalls selling all sorts there we were modelling balloons, face-painting and, would you believe it, selling Chicken Poop! Apparently it is good for the soil and people use it in their gardens. You've heard of 'Chicken Soup for the Soul';this was 'Chicken Poop for the Soil!'

It was thrilling to see some of the young people venture bravely into conversations with complete strangers and take every opportunity to share the gospel message. Though scared and anxious, they tried their best to overcome these fears and when they did, their sense of achievement was great. Some personalities find this kind of thinge asier than others of course, and it was particularly exciting to watch Peter grow in confidence as the day went on and see his courage in sharing the gospel clearly and faithfully.

A long day in the hot sun is taking its toll now and people will need no encouragement to sleep tonight.

We were due to visit Amsterdam for our day out tomorrow. However we have discovered today that Amsterdam is hosting its annual Gay Pride event tomorrow! A few hastily made phone calls and we have rearranged our trip to another of Holland's prettier cities, Utrecht. Okay, it would have been nice to visit Amsterdam but I think it was a no-brainer.

Looking forward to a more relaxing day tomorrow and no more chicken poop.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Day 2

(Peter and Dan get busy with the face paints)

The team's first surprise of the trip was that for the week we are all getting back on our bikes! In Holland, everyone uses bikes to get everywhere. So when we went to our host families last night, it was on 2 wheels. Our saddles and seat heights have been for various adjustments today so that everyone isn't walking with a limp when we get home.

After varying amounts of sleep, we arrived back at Heelal (our base) this morning and spent a bit of time receiving some practical information for our week. Our schedule is busy and varied and there won't be much time for anyone to feel bored or homesick; though people may need a long rest or holiday when they get home.

This morning the team had their first experience of 'The Big Adventure'; the name OM give to their daily team bible study. This was done in small groups and gave everyone the opportunity to contribute and spend some time alone with God and His Word.

After a light lunch we received some training in evangelism which should stand everyone in good stead tomorrow when we go the Summermarket and use newly acquired skills in Face painting [see example above] and balloon modelling as a means to gain an opportunity to share the gospel.

The team are going into Amsterdam on Saturday for our day off which is coming earlier in the week than we expected, but will provide everyone with an opportunity to sightsee and spend some of their money on gifts etc.

The Bethany team has enjoyed meeting the others we will be working with this week: Josh from Cardiff, Laura from Birmingham, Priscilla from Croydon and Tobias from Germany, Andrew from Paris, as well as our Dutch hosts, Marijke, Hannika, Judit, Peter and Jana and others.

This (and every) evening, we will have a time of team worship which will be good. Please pray for us tomorrow as we spend time witnessing at the Summermarket from 11am to 9pm (with breaks for lunch and dinner). It promises to be a busy, tiring and exciting day.

Sentences I never thought I'd hear: "Tomorrow at the Summermarket" we will be selling chicken poop." Mmmm...another day, another OM gospel opportunity...

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Day 1

(settling in at OM's youth base in Emmeloord)

Well, it's almost the end of day one and we have 5 moderately tired young people and 2 very tired leaders. We're just heading off to our host families and hoping for a good sleep before the work starts tomorrow. We'll be receiving some evangelism training from Mike Mullen of OM Ireland who has been teaching evangelism training at Teenstreet in Germany all week.

The schedule is changed somewhat from the one we had sent to us, but we'll keep you posted over the next few days. Everyone is in good spirit and the travel was simple and straightforward. Big thanks to Julia and Pauline who escorted us to the airport.

I'm signing off as we're being summoned...thanks for all your prayers.

Holland awaits!

(OM's youth drop-in centre in Emmeloord, our base for the next week)

This morning we head off to Emmeloord in the Netherlands for eight days mission with Operation Mobilisation. The team is made up five young people from Bethany Christian Centre (Tom, Rachel, Aaron, Daniel and Peter) along with two leaders, Jayne and myself. For the next week we'll be involved in various evangelistic opportunities and this blog will hopefully be able to keep folks back home up to date with news, stories and prayer requests. Thanks for stopping by.