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!
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.
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.
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.
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