21 July 2015

Renewing Prayer

everydayprayerOn Sunday at Kilmallie Free Church we looked at prayer from both the Old and New Testaments. In the morning, we looked at the astonishing promises of Jesus in Matthew 7:7-8:

Ask, and you will receive; Seek, and you will find; Knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and for the one who knocks, it will be opened.

Coupling this with what Jesus says in Matthew 6:5-8, we thought about Everyday Prayer based in the Generosity of God.

Adolf Schlatter once wrote about our lack of prayer, that ‘we carry around heavy bundles of wishings that never become askings’. That’s a bit like what we find in James 4:2: ‘you do not have because you do not ask’. Which echoes Isaiah 65:1, where the God of Israel says:

‘I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who do not seek me...’

The Generosity of God ought to invite us to Everyday Prayer. So why don’t we pray more? There might be many Reasons, but here are two that arise from Jesus’s words in Matthew 6.

Reason One is that we think we need ‘holy’ or ‘religious’ settings to pray. For the Jews in Jesus’ day that meant the temple or the synagogue, or for the Pharisees perhaps the street corner, surrounded by those they hoped to influence. In Matthew 6:6, Jesus says that you can pray even in the storeroom of your small-holding (that probably would be the only lockable room in the average Palestinian home). In the most unholy place, amongst the tools and animal feed, God will hear you. For us, our ‘holy’ setting can be our ‘devotional time’, the time that we have set aside in our minds to pray and read our Bibles every day. Or our special chair, where we sit to pray. Or our bed. These can be the places where prayer is confined. We can, perhaps unwittingly, have a view of prayer that is heavenly, rather than earthly, that is ‘sacred’ in the sense of being detached from the rest of our lives, or the rest of our busy day. Our prayers can become sectioned off from the nitty gritty of life. We then haven’t got ‘everyday prayer’, prayer that is rooted in our daily need and a cry to our Generous Father. We can pray anywhere, and at any time. And God will hear us.

Reason Two is that we think that prayer demands a ‘holy’ time (and often a significant chunk of time). We must set apart each day an hour, or half an hour, or twenty minutes, in order to have a proper ‘devotional time’. That’s great if it works, and if prayer also spills outside of these times (see above). But, for many people this ideal is difficult to sustain – and because we can’t make the model work, then prayer doesn’t really happen. This is what Frederick Bruner calls ‘The Tyranny of Much’. Some Christians, especially new disciples, struggle to pray at all because they find it difficult to find a chunk of time to do it ‘properly’, to follow the models for prayer that they’re often taught in church. We need time to execute these models of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. We’re told that if what we mainly do in prayer is ask, then that’s selfish. I wonder…is that what Jesus is saying in Matthew 7? Or in the Lord’s Prayer?

'We need to be reminded that asking is not (as some spiritual teachers tell us) more selfish than praise, which, we are told, is more God-centred; or that asking is more selfish than intercession, which is said to be more neighbor-centred; or that asking is more selfish than thanksgiving, which, we hear, is more humble. All six sentences of the Lord's Prayer are petitions, that is, they are askings. The right way for disciples to appear before God is not as givers to a divine Egoist, but as receivers from a generous Father. There can be more self-centeredness in the praise understanding of worship, which assumes that we are the important actors and God the passive recipient, than there is in the asking understanding of worship, which lets God be God and us be human beings.' Bruner, Matthew 1.344

The ‘Tyranny of Much’ can keep us from praying at all. Or from enjoying prayer, rather than feeling guilty about it all the time. Jesus said: ‘do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words’. Unlike the capricious gods that the Romans believed in, we don’t have to set out our case in prayer, to enter the Dragon’s Den with our pitch. We are children approaching a Generous Father who knows how to give good gifts (7:11), and who already knows what we need (6:8).

renewingprayerWhen we hear calls for a Renewal of Prayer (it’s what we finished with on Sunday morning), our response is often to think about how we can find more time in a quiet room to get away from the everyday for a devotional time. Again, that’s good – if it lasts. But so often we think about prayer as a way to lift ourselves out of our everyday experience, rather than a way to bring God’s Generosity into our everyday experience. Maybe our response ought to be to embrace Everyday Prayer. On Sunday I made a few suggestions if we’re struggling to pray, a few suggestions for Everyday Prayer:

  • Morning. We wake up often with lots on our minds. After grabbing a glass of juice (or whatever you do to wake up), why not take a moment as you stand in the kitchen, or sit at the table, to ask God to help you with the challenges of that day. Ask him for peace, a clear mind, and that things would work out. Ask Jesus that you might be a faithful disciple today, and make a difference in his name. It’s taken just two or three minutes.
  • Night. While you’re getting into bed, why not stop and sit for a few moments. Looking back over the day, you can see where God has helped you. So give thanks. You can also see where you fell short, you process the mistakes. Ask for forgiveness and for wisdom. Ask for peace as you sleep, for you and the family. We take that for granted so often. Again, it takes just a couple of minutes.
  • Meals. Some Christians seem to neglect ‘saying grace’, giving thanks for meals. But, it not only reminds us to thank God for our daily bread, but is a great opportunity to say a quick prayer for those in need. It might be your friend, waiting for the tests, or for your brother-in-law fighting his illness. Or for a situation in an overseas country you’ve read about. 
  • Going Out. Before you leave the house, why not quickly gather the family (as many as you can) for a quick prayer. Your daughter’s in the kitchen with some last-minute toast; your son’s tying his shoelaces. It’s all last minute. It doesn’t matter, it’s Everyday Prayer. Everyone can pause for a moment – you raise your voice a little so they can hear. Ask your Father to protect you all that day, to bring you safely home, and to help you to be faithful disciples, to help others, to live and speak the Gospel and to do what Jesus would do. It’s just a short prayer.
  • Parting. After you’ve had a great evening with friends, where you’ve shared stories and worries and laughter, and talked about church and about faith, why not pray as they leave. As you stand by the door, thank God for your friendship and pray about the worries and challenges – it’s just a minute or two.
  • Family Worship. This is an important and neglected opportunity for Everyday Prayer. Often it’s neglected because folk are idealising quite a formal time: a long Bible reading with an explanation, the singing of a psalm, and a long prayer. But, it can be short and flexible. If you have 10 minutes, take 10 minutes and everyone can say a short prayer, you and the children. If you only have 3 minutes because someone’s rushing out, then use that 3 minutes for a short reading and prayer. If despite our busyness we’re managing to eat dinner together as a family most days, then family worship is a great way to practice Everyday Prayer together.

Everyday Prayer, bringing our needs to our Generous Father. Of course, as we grow as disciples of Jesus Christ, our prayers grow too. Our experience of Everyday Prayer becomes richer as we know more of the truth of our Generous Father and our Friend Jesus. On Sunday evening we looked at Psalms 42 and 43. In those psalms we see someone remembering in prayer, questioning in prayer, speaking to themselves before God – all in the face of a really trying time. The picture is of someone whose inner life is lived in God’s presence. Someone who processes their fears and anxieties before God in prayer, asking for his help, and being honest about their struggles. As we grow as Christians, this is the character that our Everyday Prayer will take on. We’ll find more time to pray and a closeness to God in prayer that we didn’t know before. But, we have to start somewhere.

2 July 2015

The Decline of Christianity in Scotland (and Wales)

emptychurchAn article by Andy Hunter (Scotland Director of FIEC) in July’s Evangelicals Now seeks to explain the ‘spectacular spiritual decline’ in Scotland. The piece (an expanded piece can be found on Hunter’s blog) sets out several reasons why the decline in Christianity north of the Boarder seems to have been greater than that seen in England. Some of the reasons Hunter gives seem to make a lot of sense, such as the higher levels of immigration to England from Christian countries (particularly seen in London), or the infamous factionalism within Scottish Presbyterianism, which has undoubtedly turned many people from the Church.

Other reasons seem more tenuous, particularly Hunter’s quite striking claim that a greater proportion of Independent churches in England has slowed decline south of the Border.

One thing to be clear on from the start is that the measure that Andy Hunter is dealing with is self-declared religious affiliation (from the 2015 British Election Survey (BES)). That means that we’re not measuring faith, or church attendance, but something which is a cipher for the place of Christianity in the national consciousness or psyche. Or perhaps a measure of how many people identify, however broadly or culturally, with the label of ‘Christian’.

The BES data show that across Britain as a whole, 48% of the population self-identifies as belonging to a particular Christian tradition. Taking the major traditions, by far the largest constituency is Anglicanism (31.1% of the population), followed by Roman Catholicism (9.1%), Presbyterianism (3.7%) and Methodism (2.5%). All other Christian traditions together account for 1.4%. All other religions apart from  Christianity account for 7.4%. Of course, the proportion self-identifying as having no religious affiliation is large, at 45%. All of the above, perhaps surprisingly, means that in terms of religious affiliation, the largest constituency of the British population identify itself as Christian.

When you look at the declared religious affiliations since 1963, the greatest decline across 52 years is seen in ‘Other Christian’ traditions (from 23.1% to 7.6%), rather than in Anglicanism (64.5% to 31.1%) or Roman Catholicism (an increase from 8.6% to 9.1%). The ‘Other Christian’ category is too aggregate to be useful, but includes Independents amongst other groupings. Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism stand at the other end of the spectrum to Independents in terms of their structures, being large, highly-structured denominations. This is significant for judging Hunter’s argument about Independents.

The incredibly striking and sobering statistic is the rise in those declaring no religious affiliation between 1963 and 2015 (3.2% to 44.7%). In terms of a social shift, that is truly astonishing. And I would venture that when you put that alongside statistics from other European nations you would feel, if you are a UK church leader, even more sober.

When it comes to Scotland, there is clearly a higher level of non-affiliation to any religion (50.6% compared to 43.7% in England), and this is what Andy Hunter picks up on. It’s actually worse in Wales, where 51.8% declare religious non-affiliation.

The idea that Independent churches would help to maintain Christianity in the national psyche doesn’t quite ring true to me. Independency is strong in Wales, and this is the country with the highest non-affiliation. The fact that Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism have suffered less of a decline in self-identification than other traditions proves difficult for the assertion made by Andy Hunter that ‘larger institutions (including church denominations) have a tendency to become less effective over time.’ I would argue, conversely that these denominations have a much greater cultural and political impact than do Independents.

The data suggest that it is the largest institutions that have been more effective at maintaining a societal connection. I would argue that one of the factors (amongst many) that has precipitated such a decline in Christian affiliation (remembering that it’s a cipher for the place of Christianity in the national psyche) in Wales particularly is the fragmentation of the large denominations. In Wales, many evangelical congregations left the denominations during the latter half of last century. As a consequence of this, many of these have lost their former place in the consciousness of their communities, and have struggled to build bridges with communities that no longer understand who they are, or even know that they exist. These congregations have certainly had no effective place or voice in national discourse or the nation’s cultural life. Three or four decades on, many have stagnated and declined. That, I would argue, has been a significant factor in the decline in religious affiliation in Wales.

Andy Hunter is undoubtedly right to say that the fragmentation in Presbyterianism in Scotland has damaged the church’s witness. I can’t and won’t argue with that. Plenty before me have pointed out the shame of it. However, it’s easier to point out division in large bodies. Fragmentation also happens in Independent congregations, with schisms and splits, but this goes largely unnoticed in society. I really don’t think that, in general, Independent churches contribute significantly to the place of Christianity in the national psyche – national churches can do that far more effectively. Andy Hunter works for the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches – and that body undoubtedly gives a stronger voice to Independents. I’m a Presbyterian. So we’re going to see things differently. However, the data we have in the BES seem to support my point.

If we’re looking for reasons for decline, there something else I’d throw into the mix (and it undoubtedly is a mix). It’s something that has contributed to the disconnection between churches and their communities, and also between churches and cultural and political discourse. It’s an important theological aspect that goes right to the heart of Evangelicalism. British Evangelicalism was influenced from the beginning by European Pietism. This theology, which ensconced itself within Puritanism, Methodism and the thinking of the Evangelical Awakening, was dualistic and proposed a clear separation between this world and a spiritual salvation in heaven. Its outlook tended to disparage culture, denigrate humanity and the physical, including the body, the arts and large parts of human experience. It led to widespread cultural and political disengagement in the church. Pietistic Christianity, as George Caird observed, does not connect to human beings who recognise much goodness in God’s creation. More importantly, it’s not biblical.

The influence of Pietism is, I believe, a significant factor in the astonishing decline of Christianity in Scotland, and for that matter in Wales, my home country. I’m no sociologist. I’m not a church historian. But it strikes me that both Scotland and Wales, in terms of their Christian traditions, have been disproportionately affected by Pietism. It is a deficient theology, a kind of pseudo-Gnosticism. Its negative outlook on physical life and  human experience has contributed to the caricatures of Highland Calvinism and of Presbyterian preachers that still do the rounds today in Scotland and in Wales. I was reminded of this kind of thing just last week. On BBC Radio Scotland there was a piece on Dumfries Academy’s 1877 hosting of then pupil JM Barry’s play ‘Bandelero the Bandit’. The reaction (in a letter to the governors) of a local minister , Rev D.L. Scott, was reported:

‘We have turned the classroom into a theatre for the exhibition of a grossly immoral play…I say that such exhibitions are a disgrace…Are they [those attending] the pious? Are they the prayerful or the godly? No, we find that theatre-goers are the irreligious, the frivolous, the giddy and, aye, even sometimes the great many were nothing better than the off-scourings and scum of society’.

Such views might be from over 100 years ago, but this kind of Pietism has been alive and kicking in the church over the last century, and is still represented in the church today. Maybe not in such stark terms, but it’s there. You see it in churches isolated from their communities and national discourse. You see it in almost-Gnostic presentations of a Gospel of escape from the world. The decline of Christianity in the national psyches of both Scotland and Wales can be, at least in part, attributed to it.

I want to, like Hunter, end with reasons to be hopeful (Andy Hunter is to be commended for that). The Reformed tradition of Calvin and especially of Dutch theologians like Bavinck, Kuyper and Rookmaaker, points us to a robust creation theology, a robust theology of life, a grand vision of living the whole of life to the glory of God, and of redeeming culture for Jesus Christ. It’s a tradition that reflects a Gospel not of escape from the world, but of redemption for the world. That’s the Gospel of the scriptures. Our Reformed tradition also has a robust theology of the church and its place in national life. Within the Free Church of Scotland, this strand of the Reformed tradition is increasingly influential and I believe that, if we embrace it, it will produce a dynamic, contemporary, missional and engaged Reformed Church. And that’s why I believe that a renewal of Presbyterianism offers the best hope for renewing the place of the Scottish Church in the national psyche. For the glory of God in Jesus Christ.