Don’t Cling To The Bible

“Don’t cling too closely to the Bible. It’s not that important.”

That’s a paraphrase of something said to a friend of mine as he attended a Christian course. Both he and I agreed that it’s that sort of comment that immediately puts us on the defensive. It wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds though. In essence, this person was saying that we shouldn’t hold the Bible so tightly that it becomes more important than God.

And there’s a lot of truth in that isn’t there? We don’t want to become people who effectively say we worship God the Father, God the Son and God the Bible (a very real danger in conservative circles). At New Word Alive a few years ago I attended a series of Wayne Grudem’s seminars on the Bible and he said it’s all to easy to make it sound like we worship the Bible rather than Jesus. His answer to those accusations was to invite people to come along to church and let them see for themselves if that really was the case.

So that initial paraphrased quote (I’ll just call it a quote from now on), despite its unfortunate wording, seems quite reasonable doesn’t it? It seems to occupy that hallowed middle ground between the Liberals who don’t really seem concerned with the Bible at all, and the fundamentalists who read everything 100% literally. But I’m not sure it does. For all it’s well meaning intentions, I think it highlights a misunderstanding of what the Bible really is, and so rather than occupying a middle ground, actually ends up in a sort of biblical no mans land.

It’s 100% right to say that our love should be directed towards God and we must avoid the very real danger of worshipping a book, rather than it’s author. But there in lies the issue. God and his word are not that simply divided. The quote sounds like a reasonable thing to say because many of us slip into the trap of thinking in terms of God and the Bible as completely distinct entities. I mean, one’s a person and one’s a book for goodness sake. Why wouldn’t we think like that? But the reality is subtly different. Try thinking in terms of God and God’s word and suddenly that quote begins to look absurd.

Look at it this way, the basic premise is “love the person (God), don’t end up just loving a book.” But it’s not just a book. It’s the words of the person. What would it look like if I applied that thinking to my relationship with my wife? If I told you that I love Becca but I don’t really need to pay that much attention to what she says, or that what she says isn’t really that important, I think you’d begin to question the reality of my love for her and the nature of our relationship. What would it say about my love for her if I think that her words may be worth listening to but I shouldn’t cling too closely to them? And so more importantly, what would it say about my love for Jesus if I feel that way about his words, the Bible? Suddenly, we begin to realise that divorcing the two from one another becomes a little bit silly.

…and so by extension think what he says is quite important too!

After all, the disciples seemed to realise loving Jesus didn’t mean having intense feelings about him in some abstract way, but listening to his words and then putting them into practice. As Peter says:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

We can’t leave Jesus’ words behind (I mean, where else would we go?) therefore we can’t leave the Bible behind. There’s no other place to go if we want to know Jesus and hear what he has to say to us today. This isn’t a 2000 (or more) year old document simply recording a bygone age but it is something living and active.

So do make sure you love Jesus and not just his book. But do treat Jesus’ words as important, do cling to them, because these words are the only way we know anything about Jesus in the first place, these words are the words of the person we claim to love most & these words are the words of eternal life.

Preach the Word & Care for the Flock

I’ve just got back from my second year at the Bible Centred Youth Work Conference run by the Good Book company. It’s been a really encouraging few days and it was great to be able to meet with other youth workers who are in the same position as I am and who are facing similar struggles. It was also a useful time to be able to gather my thoughts on my ministry and where it’s strengths and weaknesses lie.

The teaching at the conference has been really helpful in focusing me back onto what I’m actually here to do and really helped in getting some perspective on my situation. Basically, I like a bit of a grumble, and whilst my church is far from perfect, hearing about the situations that some people are in made me realise just how good I have it.

In many ways, I still haven’t had much time to really process what I heard at the conference and so anything I say now may just be reactionary, but there was a lot of food for thought, some of which I referenced in my mini-blogs during the conference. It’s the comments of Phil Moon and Dave Fenton in relation to how they’ve seen youth work change over the years that have really stuck in my mind and I’d like to make some comment on what they said and how I feel this speaks into my situation.

Firstly,

More Work, Less Progress

This was something I could immediately identify with as it’s something that a number of us have often said plagues our own church. I personally associate the ‘more work’ with a couple of different things. Firstly, busyness. It’s an incredibly worldly idea to think that you can only be doing things properly if you’re busy and rushed off your feet. That’s not to suggest that we should be sitting around doing very little; of course we need to work very hard at what we do and give our all to it. But when your youth group or church starts to decline or growth slows, the temptation is to start thinking about what new things we can add to the calendar and eventually we end up with a weekly schedule where we just rush about from one thing to the next in a state of heightened stress. There’s a lot on offer but it’s not really moving anyone forward, just stressing us out and putting pressure excess pressure on us (and probably everyone else too).

Secondly, I think this shows that we can be working really hard, but if there’s no progress, perhaps the work we’re doing isn’t the right kind. Maybe we’ve got our priorities wrong. I marvel at churches whose young people are never taught the Bible in any real depth and yet  they can’t understand why their youth ministry isn’t growing. It’s cause you’re working hard at fun and games but not teaching the word.

I think both busyness and our work being misdirected, actually hinder progress and are the reason so many youth workers burn out. Apparently the average UK church youth worker lasts 17 months before they burn out which is shocking. I was definitely struck by that and I need to examine what parts of my week are actually things which are just clogging up the diary and actually hindering the youth work at my church. Anyway, the next thing was:

More Focus, Less Sacrifice

Being, for the most part, a conservative evangelical and part of a solid Bible teaching church, it’s unsurprising that my ministry has a heavy focus on preaching and teaching the word. If you’ve read some of my other blogs you might have picked up on my conviction that it’s the word of God that speaks to people and opens their eyes and that basically, youth work without the Bible is pretty much unthinkable to my mind. However, what Phil Moon seemed to be saying, was that as conservative evangelicals we have prioritised the word so much, that it’s actually been to the detriment of our relationships with our young people. We’ve become so embroiled in knowing how to handle the Bible correctly, how to give good talks that are faithful to the word etc, that we just don’t have much of a focus on sacrificing our time and selves to be with our young people and really get alongside them. Both Phil and Dave recounted various outings they’d gone on as young people and later with their own young people, and how important those times were. Even those times were teaching times because ministry is incarnational. We have to share our lives with our young people, not just an hour and a half at bible study each week. 1 Thessalonians 2:8 says this:

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.

Paul is saying ‘there was more to our ministry that just telling you the gospel. We lived amongst you, we laughed with you, we cried with you, we shared every part of our lives with you. Why? Because we love you.’ We all know (or should do) that youth work is relational, but somehow, despite knowing that, we’ve gradually pushed that out due to our heavy focus on the word. The key for us now is to keep that evangelical word focus but also get back to sharing our lives with our young people; making sacrifices for our ministry. Sharing the gospel and our lives with our young people because we love them. I think this is a real weakness in my ministry and one that needs addressing. We do have some great relationships, but they could be so much more. And making that a reality can be a lot simpler than we might think. An example was mentioned of how one leader used to take her kids to the shopping centre. She was going shopping and asked if anyone wanted to come, so she drove them in and they simply went about their shopping. They didn’t have to spend the whole time together. They went their separate ways and then re-grouped for refreshments and such like, but it was a great time of relationship building and an opportunity to have some really good chats in the car and over coffee. I’m already mulling over what I can do with my kids and I think adding more of this kind of stuff in could make a huge difference. The third change was:

More Training, Less Practice

Basically we have a generation made up of a vast number of people who have been heavily trained in how to handle the Bible and lead Bible studies, and somehow an attitude has grown up that you basically have to have a PhD to teach the Bible. It’s all become quite academic and we’ve become training reliant. We’re afraid to let those without the right qualifications get up and teach. But the reality is that we now have a lot of people who have been taught how to do things, but haven’t actually done many of those things in the real world. They’ve been taught how to do it but they’ve never really done it. When I look back over the years and the various things I lead at, I know I got up and made a real mess of stuff sometimes. But if I hadn’t been given the opportunity to have a go, mess it up, learn from it and try again, then I wouldn’t have had any chance of moving forward or growing. The challenge for me now is to not be afraid to let others have a go and fail. We still want to support and train our leaders as best we can, but we need to realise that they don’t have to have done three years at Bible college before they can get up and lead. Sure, they won’t be the finished product, but then who the hell is? I’m certainly not. I’m thankful I was given the opportunities to try and to fail and so now I’ve got to learn to trust God enough to let others do the same.

The way Dave Fenton summed up Christian youth work was this: Preach the word and care for the flock. Those are the only two things we need to do. It’s really that simple but yet we often make it so much more complicated. When someone sums up our ministry so succinctly and so concisely, we can’t help but look at our ministry and realise that we just need to go right back to basics. All we are to do is to preach the word and share our lives with our young people. We show them Jesus and we care for them, we listen to them, we laugh with them, we cry with them, we pray with them, we support them and we have fun with them. Why? Because we love them.

That’s what will make a great youth ministry.

Conference Day 2

Another challenging day at the conference with lots of food for thought, some of which I’ll jot down now with a mind to expand on them a bit when I get home.
Some thoughts from Phil Moon & Dave Fenton on how youth work has changed since they started out. Conclusions:
More work, less progress.
More focus, less sacrifice.
More training, less practice.

I’ll expand on those later. There was also a lot of talk about how our focus on the word has been to the detriment of relationships with our young people. We’ve got two things to do: preach the word and care for the flock but often one slips in favour of the other.
Definitely got me thinking.