Is it time for the Church in the West to grow up?

Is it time for the Church in the West to grow up?

 When I wrote the blog on Josh Williamson being arrested in Perth I must admit that I did expect a reaction but not quite the one I received.  There were hundreds of responses – more than I could possibly deal with.   On reflection it seems to me that the responses are a useful indicator of something far bigger than the question of one man in Perth being arrested.   If you read the original blog below .you can get the main details of the story.

 There were those who agreed with what was said and were very appreciative of it.  These varied from politicians and police, to preachers and Perthites.  There were others who agreed with the analysis but did not think it was nice to say it.  I received several messages saying that it was wrong of me to criticise a brother in public.  The only problem with this group was that they all criticised me in public!  Perhaps they do not recognise me as a brother or were just making an exception to their rule in my case?!

The Kitten of Queen Mary

But what surprised me was not that there were those who thought that what I said was wrong, but that they were so vehement about it.  The insults were at times hilarious.  Apparently I am ‘the kitten of Queen Mary’ rather than the lion of John Knox, living in a land ruled by Satan (I knew Alex Salmond was bad…but?!).   I am a compromising preacher who is symptomatic of the decline of the Church in the West, having no interest in evangelism or standing up to the forces of secularism and Satan.  I am an evil self-publicist cozying up to the enemies of the Gospel in order to save my own skin.  I was informed that I was not a pastor because I was not willing to break man’s law and that I was a goat rather than a sheep.  My disobedience would result in demons biting my heart and separating me from God!    You kind of get the picture.

No Interest in the Gospel?

I have no particular desire to deal with all the accusations but there are a couple that need to be knocked on the head.  Firstly the accusation that I have no interest in evangelism or the gospel.  I accept of course that many of my correspondents were speaking from ignorance and do not know me.  The irony is that I wrote the blog because of my interest in evangelism and the gospel.  On the Saturday I was in Perth speaking to a Christian lawyers conference on communicating the gospel in our culture.  On Monday I was at Forfar Community Church looking at ways we could help them reach the people of Forfar.  This coming Thursday I will be doing a webinar on using the media in evangelism.  Last Sunday and this Sunday I will be preaching the gospel to believers and non-believers alike.  My life is to tell the Gospel.

A Liar and a Slanderer

The second accusation is even more serious.  I am a liar and a slanderer.  Sadly this comes from Josh himself – and is repeated by many others.  http://www.joshwilliamson.org/home/89-a-public-reply-to-the-lies-and-slander-spread-by-reverend-david-robertson.html

I wrote to Josh privately and had hoped that my correspondence would remain private.  Sadly he chose to quote from it in public and accuse me of hypocrisy.   Anyway I think I should probably point out that I agree with Josh.  In many ways I am a hypocrite.  I find myself knowing with my mind the wondrous truths of the Gospel and yet finding it really difficult to apply them all in every area of my life.  I slip up many times and I think I can fairly be accused of being a hypocrite (good job that I have a saviour who died for the sin of hypocrisy as well!).   I also get things wrong.  For example I got it wrong when I wrote that Josh returned the next day after he was arrested on the Wednesday.  It was not, it was the Saturday.  (Even more shocking, on my initial post I even got his name wrong).   But there is a great difference between getting something wrong and telling lies about someone.   The rest of Josh’s response does not really identify the lies that I am supposed to have told about him.

A Set UP? 

However there is one area where he has a legitimate complaint – the accusation of the whole thing being a ‘set up’.  That was, at the very least a sloppy use of language on my part.  I apologise.   There were two possibilities here.  Firstly that Josh did not realise that going back to a place where he had already been told by the police of the peace and repeating the offence, would result in him being arrested.  Then all Josh would have been guilty of was stupidity.    However having looked at the video again he comes across to me as someone who is intelligent and knew exactly what he was doing.  Its true that he did not set up the scenario in order to get arrested (and I should not have said that) – however he did go out to the same place, was provocative and refused to obey the quite reasonable request of the police to tone it down.  He came across as delighting in being ‘a martyr for the truth’.  This seems to be a badge of honour amongst the ‘street preaching community’.

Immature and Infantile

Which brings me on to the main point of this blog.  I think this incident shows that much of the evangelical church in the West (at least the English speaking part) is either senile or juvenile.  There is a desperate immaturity, which is exacerbated by modern means of communication.  JI Packer once famously said that the American church was three thousand miles wide and one inch deep.  I would argue that that analysis is often correct.  This is not to say that there are no mature churches or Christians in the US or UK – thankfully there are many.  But it is to say that overall there is often a profound shallowness which allows people who display an emotional, logical and spiritual immaturity to think that they are being faithful, whilst all who oppose them in any way are of the devil.

In previous centuries there were of course always such people.  All of us are immature at some point.  But in the context of the community of the Church we usually grow up.  Churches, which provided good bible teaching, fellowship and discipline, were (and still are) ideal places to help those young in the faith mature.   But today’s evangelicals are in a hurry. We all want to be Christian superstars.  Now.   The Internet sometimes allows those young in the faith and in a hurry, to wreck havoc, bolstered by sycophants, immune from church discipline.   They are beyond question, unteachable and undisciplined.  They buy deeply into the predominant cultural narrative whilst proclaiming that they are against it.  For example you will note how I used the phrase ‘the street preaching community’.   What is that?  Everyone has to have a ‘community’, whether it’s the transvestite community, or the Trekkie ‘community’ or the canoeing ‘community’ or apparently the ‘street preaching community’.  The latter phrase by the way came from Tony Miano; a colleague of Josh’s who has also been arrested in the UK.  The reason I got so many e-mails and messages was because I upset the ‘street preaching community’.  A word of warning – don’t do that.  It’s worse than upsetting the Beiber ‘community’ or the New Atheist ‘community’.  From all over the world you will receive messages telling you what an evil tool of Satan you are!

Oddballs and Eccentrics

The danger is that it then becomes all about them and their ministry.  It’s all about their feelings.  A few decades ago the odd oddball could be sidelined, helped and encouraged to develop a more rounded ministry.  Today they go online and receive the adoration of foolishness in the name of love.  This is a much wider issue than the ‘street preaching’ community. (And please note that my blog was not, nor am I opposed to street preaching – I am just opposed to bad, culturally insensitive street preaching).    In my own denomination we have tolerated for far too long those who were eccentric and off the wall precisely because it would be too difficult to deal with them, and anyway what harm were they doing?  Mind you I have to pay the Free Church credit for the way that this does not always apply – I have benefited enormously from the rebukes and encouragement of my brethren – despite all my oddities!

The bottom line is that we have ended up with a situation where the infantile, the immature and the self-absorbed are free to get on with ‘their’ ministries;  unaccountable, undisciplined and often leaving a trail of wrecked lives and churches in their wake.  Please note that I am not making a specific point about Josh Williamson, as I really do not know enough about him.  I am referring to the numerous messages I received which indicate that this is the case, and the kind of nonsense that one can see on God TV and read in Christian magazines and on the Internet.   (and for example many of the comments on the Unbelievable FB page on the thread after Justin Brierley posted my original article – https://www.facebook.com/UnbelievableJB)

The Christian Nudist Community 

My view is that the church in the West faces many threats.  Persecution and prejudice.  False teaching, hypocrisy and trivialisation.  Ironically I think that the fuss about street preaching is a relatively trivial issue.  How dare we complain about persecution when Christians in other parts of the world are losing their homes and even their lifes because they are believers!   But perhaps there is one that is as big a threat as any of them.   I mean the infantilisation of Christianity to the extent that church discipline and therefore church maturity is lost. This infantilisation of the Church results in its atomisation.  No matter what you do in the Christian world you will find some Christians somewhere who will be willing to defend your ‘faithfulness’ and attack your opposers.  Whether you are into street preaching, money making for Jesus or Christian nudity, you will find a ‘community’ to support and defend you.  One of the more surreal experiences of my life was being asked to join the Christian nudist community!

Motives 

Anyway now that we have reached the surreality of Christian nudism, let me finish by answering the question as to why I wrote the blog.  Incidentally I find it somewhat bizarre that much of the criticism I received from people was from those who asked whether it was right for me to question Josh’s motives, and who then went on to question mine!  I should just simply point out that I stated that Josh’s motives were to proclaim the Gospel but that of course all of us sinners have mixed motives.  And that includes me.  I struggle to know my own heart, never mind anyone else’s!

A Circus Sideshow 

Be that as it may, let me explain why I think I wrote the initial blog and why I would write it again – even with the wrath of the ‘street preaching’ community coming down on my head.   Josh and others thought it was a hatchet job.  I can understand that but I’m afraid such an analysis only comes from inexperience and a certain delusional pride.  I have nothing against Josh.  I knew virtually nothing about him. My blog was not about him. Neither he nor I are that important.   It was about the communication of the Gospel in Scotland today.  My concern is with the community and people of Perth, not whatever particular sub-set community I happen to belong to.   I don’t know Josh’s motives but of course I accept that he was genuine in trying to communicate the Gospel.  But he was turning the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ into a circus sideshow, played out on the Internet.  It has become all about Josh, not all about Jesus.   That was, and is my concern.

Caring

Of course I care about Josh and I would like to help him in his desire to communicate the gospel in my culture.  I care about the Christians in Perth who feel that their years of patient, faithful and culturally sensitive witness to the Gospel of Jesus has been undermined by a crass and insensitive approach. I care even more about the stallholder who got so angry, and the policewoman who was so gracious and respectful.   I want to apologise to them for the insensitive and ungracious way they were treated.  I want to tell them Jesus is not like that and that the Good News is not about getting ourselves arrested for shouting at people.   I want them to see Jesus and not Josh – and I suspect that in his calmer moments, he would think the same thing.  Which is why he and others need to hear from those of us who live here and have been ministering here for many years and who also love the Lord.   We are by no means perfect and we could do with missionaries and others from outwith our communities.  But we need them to be humble as well as bold, listening as well as talking, and please please be patient.

Communicating 

Going back to the small Forfar community church we met with on Monday morning.  They have to build relationships in the town, they have a desire to proclaim the full gospel of Jesus Christ, they know that some will reject and that there will be fierce opposition.  They also know that someone standing on Forfar High Street, shouting (or being perceived to shout) at passers-by, would not help the work.  It is detrimental to the communication of the Gospel and in that it cannot really be said to be proclaiming the Gospel.

Christ

Two years ago this month I came very close to death.  I live with that consciousness every day.  For me to live is Christ, and to die will be gain.  Which is why I have no regrets about asking the Church to grow up and get on with proclaiming the good news of Jesus is a mature, relevant, contemporary, contextual and Christ-centred way.  He must increase.  I must decrease.

St Peters Dundee

8th October 2013

26 thoughts on “Is it time for the Church in the West to grow up?

  1. A deeply thought-provoking post. Thank you for the clarification and apology within it. I hope and pray that folks will read, reflect, digest, and if they need to respond, do so in a mature fashion.

  2. David, thank you for another excellent blog which points towards the wider issue for Christianity in Scotland today which Josh’s encounter with the police raises.
    I didn’t comment on your previous blog and as more and more comments came in I realised it was getting harder for me to formulate my thoughts. All I will say now is on first reading of Josh’s arrest I thought it was clear evidence of the state’s attack on Christians and Christianity in Scotland. On reflection and after viewing the videos I did think there was a bit of the George Galloways about it. The priceless photo op of the peace loving politician being arrested at Faslane for protesting against MDW.
    I think the call for a mature Christianity is very timely. My local church has experienced the damaging effects of an immature minister whose theology was more in line with the God channel than the good book.

  3. Another excellent post in my opinion as it goes to the root of the malaise within the modern church.

    I went out to my local Christian bookshop this morning to purchase the “Christian Legal Handbook” ( ISBN-13:978 1 907731 85 3). In the section on Open Air Preaching, it lists 13 points of what I would call Best Practice. Few, if any, of these were followed in Perth.

    By all means be ready “to make a defence to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you”, but first “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts”, and then, when you do it, “do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping a good conscience, so that in the thing in which you are being slandered, those who revile your good behaviour will be put to shame”.

  4. I think you are spot on about the phrase “ministries”, I see it a lot now a days, “you cannot stop me doing it because it is MY ministry”. I have seen people leave churches because they don’t feel that their “ministry” is being appreciated. It just seems now to be a word that people use because they feel it make what ever they are doing beyond reproach. It is all about them and not about God.

  5. Ok. I have read a post from Josh’s blog. I have viewed a video of Josh getting arrested. I have carefully re-read your post. Now I feel I am more equip to make a comment.

    Since, I live in the States and [very] rarely see deafening street sermons, I found Josh’s actions interesting. I primarily watched the reaction of the people as they passed him by. Personally, and mainly because I rarely see such, I thought he was a “stark raving lunatic”. Like David, I thought both police officers were extremely nice about the situation. Really. And the scripture that comes to mind concerning Josh’s behavior as not acting like a child of God is this: But all things should be done decently and in order. –1 Corinthians 14:40

    Unfortunately Josh did not realize he was being mean to the shop keepers and their customers.

    Honestly, I don’t know anyone that want the words of God shouted at them. Really.

    The word of God says “With love and kindness did I draw thee.” What was happening in the street was not love and kindness. I could be wrong, but it seem it was about Josh and not about Christ (even-though Josh was shouting the words that lead many to salvation).

    I can see your irritation concerning street ministries. I totally agree with your views on Josh’s behavior. However, I truly pray that you contacted Josh prior to using his recent brush with the law before you printed your thoughts on Christian street conduct.

    Great blog post.

  6. So the argument against street preaching is that some people won’t like it? I’m sorry, but that doesn’t seem very persuasive. Can I rephrase it? People don’t mind the gospel if they can keep it in the ghetto where it can be safely ignored.

    1. The reason that it is not persuasive is that it is not the argument at all. I am no more arguing against street preaching than I would be arguing against preaching if I critiqued one bad sermon! You can rephrase it all you want – but at the very least do me the courtesy of reading my article first and arguing against what I am saying, not what I am not. By the way – one of the best ways to keep the gospel in the Christian ghetto is to proclaim it in such a way that people want to desperately avoid it and anyone who has anything to do with it.

  7. Please don’t be discouraged by the abuse you received. You are a valiant servant of The Lord. Nothing you said deserved abuse, let alone the level of abuse that came your way. Your comments then and now reflect the misgivings of many.

  8. Hi David. As you moderate these messages (rightly so in this case!), you do not have to publicly post this if you don’t want to.

    I think some of the comments you received were shocking (but sadly not surprising). There is often a closing ranks mentality among “communities” where if one is criticised, many others will leap to the defence of the person (without much discernment of the validity of the criticism). This is very much human nature I think.
    The evangelical community can indeed be a painful place to be and to voice opinion (especially if that opinion is at times less than conservative). Hopefully you also were able to hear the many voices of support amongst the pain of the anger.

    I belong to the group of people whom you describe as saying they agreed but didn’t think it was very nice to say it. Perhaps I’m in a community 😉

    I have heard you defend yourself from similar views before by commenting that in telling you that you shouldn’t have said something publicly, the other person was doing the very same thing.

    A couple of points here – even if true, does this negate the validity of their point? It seems a bit like saying – well, you do it too, so I’m going to keep doing it. I think that if someone even hypocrticially tells me something from a loving motive, then it should be something I consider and reflect on, rather than just point out the hypocrisy and ignore it.

    A second point though is that it is slightly different for someone to blog about one individual in such a high profile way and ask them to repent publicly and for someone to gently suggest that it might not be a wise move to do this publicly on your own blog’s comments section. I agree it would be the same if another blogger blogged about your sin of calling someone else to repent and told you in their blog to repent of your call to repent. However, I don’t think it is hypocritical of the Christian community to gently suggest it might not be nice to be so public about something in the first instance.

    In Christian life there is a lot of discernment and wisdom required. We need to know not only what to say and do, but how to say and do it. I think you were right to highlight the concerns about getting arrested for how street preaching was done. I think there would have been considerably less furore if you hadn’t publicly called for him to repent (a very emotionally laden expression) and instead suggested alternative ways of doing street preaching or something similar that was less an emphasis on what was perceived by many (though I acknowledge you deny) to be a personal attack.

    I am not calling you to repent or telling you that I think you are wrong. I am genuinely trying to be helpful, which I hope you will discern. God bless you David.

    P.S. This is a significant anniversary for you and I would like you to know that I was one of the many people who prayed for you through that difficult time.

    1. Thanks Monk! Much appreciated and your points are well made. Its not so much the hypocrisy – just that the point made is negated by the actions of those who make it. In other words it is self-contradictory. As it happens I think it is perfectly ok in many instances to publicly criticise me or other believers!

      I agree it is not nice asking people to repent! My primary concern though is with the people of Perth, not the reputation or otherwise of the preacher.

      Anyway I thank you for your considered and gracious post. Plenty to think about!

      And your prayers are even more appreciated.

  9. Thank you for taking the time to reflect and write the first blog, and then the very well thought out and tempered response. I have read many of the responses and I’m ashamed that so many ‘christians’ have felt it appropriate to type their comments and turn this into a very unseemly circus. It brings no credit to the Gospel message and surely brings pain to our Saviour.

    In love we deal with each other, for each others santification, not to harm them, not to off load bile, but to come alongside and nurture the seed planted in us by His Grace, and to weed out that which stifle’s the Spirit’s work within us.

    In closing, please don’t let anyone be confused by what I mean by love. It is not some weak emotion, but it is the strong thought out self-control of a parent who through patience, discipline, example and tender nurturing helps their beloved child grow into their full potential. It is this love that is at the heart of these blogs.

  10. Thanks David for a very encouraging and graceful blog post. I agree with you all the way. While I am positive about open-air evangelism we have to realize that there various ways to do it – lovingly and as you said, culturally sensitive.
    I am working in Madagascar which is a developing country were we are planting churches and the national church planters also some do open-air preaching and evangelism in rural areas and it is appropriate and quite successful. However, I have also seen street preachers in the cities and bigger towns but the effect are the same like in street preaching in places like London, Los Angeles or Cape Town. People just ignore it and it seems most often like more harm than good is done.

    I think a better way to do it is with music, mime or drama in developed Western countries – in such a way that you draw an audience. I have seen a group of young people (and a few middle aged ones) of YWAM doing a drama which drew considerable crowds. It was well prepared but it was worth while. Such a ministry will take much more input and preparation than street preaching but the results showed it was worth all the effort.
    People like Josh has some wonderful gifts and boldness and I would really plead with them to seriously think and pray how they use their gifts and opportunities in much more effective way and present the Gospel in a sensitive and appropriate way in which caring relationships plays a huge role in their outreach – really being the salt Jesus taught us to be …. and be aware of being too salty!

  11. I live in the United States, and so the laws are not all the same. But the first amendment is valued here so that even if there are complaints, his right to preach trumps their desire to not hear his voice. If he were arrested in a US munincipality, that police department that arrested him for exercising his first amendment rights would be liable to lawsuits, and would lose. I can’t comment on the laws in Scotland. But I have a hard time blaming him for what he was doing. If the police department was being overly restrictive in the way it was enforcing the law, there would also be benefit in purposely providing a test case as he did to try and carve out a larger sphere of liberty for the future.

    I didn’t see anything wrong with what he was doing. His volume was up to be heard by a maximum number of people. He was not shouting. He was preaching loudly. There were people listening, as I noticed on the videos. Some were very apparently listening, and others were trying to look like they weren’t but they really were. And other engaged him, which for a street preacher, is even better! Naturally he responded to those who were engaging him, in a kind and respectful way. Remember that preaching to an outdoor congregation (as you suggest) is not the same thing as street preaching.

  12. David:

    You saw the comments posted from American Christians in response to your timely take on the street preaching in Perth.

    Might I label those comments Exhibit A supporting the idea that the church in the west needs to grow up?

    1. HighPlainsParson was just proven wrong.

      They arrested street preacher(s) in Missouri this week. Even though I have not examined all the details it appears as if the case maybe similar to the one in Perth heretofore referenced.

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