Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K. A. Smith

imaginingA few years ago I read the first volume of Jamie Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project entitled Desiring the Kingdom and I really enjoyed it. His basic thesis was that we are all basically creatures of desire (an Augustinian anthropology) and that our liturgies (sacred or secular) are enormously important in shaping our desires (‘pedagogies of desire’). He got a fair bit of criticism for the book (some of it unfair in my view), but I think he’s offering a helpful critique of the traditional Protestant intellectual obsession.

And so for a while I’ve looked forward to finally getting round to reading volume 2 – Imagining the Kingdom. Building on the first volume, Smith argues that our bodies and our imaginations play a huge role in how liturgies shape us. That liturgy shapes us is argued for in his first volume; how liturgy shapes us is the subject of volume 2. To use Smith’s own summary, ‘liturgical anthropology is rooted in both kinaesthetics and poetics’ (101).

On narrative he states, ‘Our hearts traffic in stories . . . We’re less convinced by arguments than moved by stories . . . they [stories] mean on a register that eludes articulation and analysis’ (108-09).

On practise he observes that the church must be not only centrifugal, but also centripetal, gathering saints for ‘dispositional reformation’ (157).

He has a fascinating little aside on Facebook as follows:

‘While it purports to be simply a “medium,” it comes loaded with a story about what matters, and who matters. And as we inhabit these virtual worlds – clicking our way around the environment, constantly updating our ‘status’ and checking on others, fixated on our feed, documenting our ‘likes’ for others to see – we are slowly and covertly incorporated into a body politic with its own vision of human flourishing . . . and all of this happens precisely because we don’t think about it.’

Now I’m a fan of social media, a user, and an apologist for it’s good uses, but his example I think is a powerful illustration of how the nexus of kinaesthetics and poetics serve to subconsciously shape us.

In his conclusion Smith has further helpful and stimulating things to say about how Christian worship should then function to form disciples. In short, form matters, and we should be more thoughtful and intentional.

You don’t have to agree with everything in a book to find it incredibly helpful and stimulating. In fact, some of my favourite writers would be in different theological camps to myself. A good writer makes you think and wrestle with ideas in the light of Scripture – to challenge existing ideas and assumptions. And for me Jamie Smith certainly does that.

The Preacher I Want To Be

A few years ago I read a John Ortberg book called The Me I Want To Be. I was thinking recently that there’s also a Preacher I Want To Be and the picture isn’t as pretty as I’d like:

  • The funny guy . . . I want people to laugh at my jokes and think I’m funny. They’ll like me more, and might want to listen to what I say.
  • The ‘cool’ guy . . . Not super-hipster cool; I know I’m not that. But I don’t want people thinking I’m ‘sad’ or out of touch. I at least want them to think I’m not a geek.
  • The smart guy . . . Whether through brilliant theological insight, philosophical and apologetic engagment, high-brow quotes, or even a splash of Hebrew, I want people to think I’m smart.
  • The passionate guy . . . I want people to think that I’m super-spiritual and deeply connected to God on a moment-by-moment basis, and I can demonstrate it by my intense passion in preaching.
  • The eloquent guy . . . I work hard to think up those slick turns of phrase. I want you to notice them and consider my genius.
  • The ‘makes me cry’ guy . . . I want to make you cry because I can then think that God has really used me today.
  • The ‘lauded and applauded’ guy . . . I want to speak to big crowds at conferences and for people to tell all their friends how brilliant I was. I love nothing more than meeting a stranger who tells me how brilliant I was at that conference three years ago.
  • The faithful guy . . . And deep down, buried amidst the mess of my sin, I want to be faithful, prayerful, and I want Jesus to be glorified more than me. Lord I believe, help my unbelief.

This stuff is so hard because it’s not all completely evil. Humour is good because it establishes a connection. I don’t want to distract people (positively or negatively) by what I wear. I do want the message to be credible intellectually. I do want people to know I really believe this stuff and think it matters enormously. I do want the truth to stir emotion. And I do want to see God at work in massive ways. These desires aren’t necessarily bad. It’s just that they tend to get mixed into my other sinful desires which tells me I need to keep working at this stuff, pray lots, and have accountability with others who can be honest with me. I don’t think it’s just me that wrestles with this stuff. I do think I need to preach to myself more than I preach to others.

Preaching: Full English or Bowl of Shreddies?

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Every Tuesday morning the team sits down to review the previous Sunday – what went well, what could we do better, etc. And we normally give a good portion of the time to thinking about how we can all be constantly improving our preaching.

One of the things that we’ve been thinking about recently is content, and the principle that, generally speaking, less is more. Preaching isn’t a feast for the fat; it’s nourishment for the needy. It’s less ‘full English’ and more a bowl of Shreddies.

This thought crystallized for me while away at a conference. Every morning we’d get a full English breakfast – marvellous me thinks, until I get to the final day, and my innards are making strange groans. Frankly, by the last day I’m not even sure I could face a fourth full English. I love it, but couldn’t eat it every day – it’s just too much, too rich, and too hard to digest. By day four I want a small bowl of Shreddies.

As preachers I think this is a principle we need to understand. If we’re in it for the long haul with people, we don’t need to unload all of our doctrinal system each and every week. It’s too much for ordinary folk to take. Less is more. I’m not encouraging ‘dumbing-down’ or just talking about life-style issues, at the expense of tough doctrine. I am encouraging us to walk a mile in our people’s shoes and consider what they really need week by week. I fear too much preaching assaults the intellect, and leaves the preacher quietly self-satisfied and smug as he dismounts his favourite hobby horse. ‘The Bible college student sat in the congregation can now be in no doubt as to my theological prowess’ the preacher says to himself. Ask Bill in the pew what he took out of it you might get a blank stare.

If you really want people to be nourished, and not just overwhelmed in some kind of food-coma, don’t try and serve up a full English every time. Over the long-haul less is more. Shreddies will do fine thank you.

Leadership Lessons from the Battle of Britain

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Guest post: Jon Putt

These are all drawn from Stephen Bungay’s The Most Dangerous Enemy.

Lesson 1 – success and failure have deep roots. The British made decisions in the late 1930s which helped them win the Battle of Britain; the Germans made decisions in 1940 which virtually guaranteed they lost the war. Equally, Britain made decisions in 1940 which would lead them to losing the peace as they prosecuted an aggressive war of no surrender, ‘whatever the cost may be’. The cost turned out to be enough to bankrupt them several times over.

Lesson 2 – effectiveness is harmed when people fail to get on. Air Vice Marshall Keith Park, the genius commander of 11 Group fostered a fantastic spirit within the group by frequently visiting his front line units, humbly listening to them, and sharing information with them. By contrast the commander of 12 group, Leigh-Mallory was not known for such humility and concern. It is no surprise that 12 group was home to the relatively ineffective, and militarily costly ‘big wing’ pioneered by Douglas Bader. Furthermore, when 12 group was asked to co-operate with 11 group, the results were underwhelming thanks to the animosity between Park and Leigh-Mallory. When 10 group worked with 11 group, the results were far more satisfactory. Tellingly, Park was known by the Germans as ‘the defender of London’, Leigh-Mallory as a pedantic bureaucrat. Such rivalry was far more marked in the Luftwaffe who experienced some disastrous moments in their campaign over the South East.

Lesson 3 – Victories can be dangerous – Britain was ‘psychologically damaged’ by the Battle of Britain victory because it attributed success to all the wrong factors and failed to learn the real lessons:

Myth 1 – victory was due to acts of collective and individual heroism of which only the British are capable. Failed to see the importance of collective hard work and careful thinking, therefore these latter factors have been subsequently under-valued.

Myth 2 – Victory was against the odds, therefore other victories can be won against the odds. The odds were in many ways in favour of British victory, therefore not ensuring this in the future can be disastrous.

Myth 3 – Despite being under-prepared the British muddled through via ingenious improvisation. Actually, the British air defences were probably the best organised and deployed in the world at the time. Furthermore, the Royal Navy began the war as they ended it, by sinking enemy ships from the Arctic circle to the Indian Ocean.

In their teutonic thoroughness, energy, and capacity to organise, the British excelled in qualities they more frequently ascribe to their continental rivals, though they failed to recognise it both at the time and subsequently.

Lesson 4 – humble collective team effort trumps the individual warrior ethic. The latter, enshrined in Nazi ideology and the Luftwaffe, led to inefficient tactics, an amateur approach to strategy and tactics, and the pursuit of individual goals at the expense of overall victory, which cost the Luftwaffe dear in terms of both lives and machines. The RAF on the other hand downplayed the roles of individuals, ‘heroism’ was frowned on, and were ruthless, thoughtful and careful in planning, prioritising the task over individual advancement.

These approaches were reflected in the military decorations awarded. The Luftwaffe awarded medals for numbers of planes shot down, which led to reckless activities on the part of their aces, even sacrificing their juniors to pursue targets, and led to vastly exaggerated kill claims (something of which the RAF was not innocent). When these turned out to be false, the affect on morale was devastating. A lesson in the danger of over-promising, over-estimating one’s success, when in fact one is under-delivering, under-achieving. By contrast the RAF awarded military decorations for valour, which recognised and encouraged RAF pilots that stuck to their tasks despite sometimes bleak consequences. In the Battle of Britain, awarding effort, or input, rather than achievement, or outputs, appeared to secure greater success overall. It at least reflected a more fruitful mindset.

This mindset also made it easier to solve problems quickly as it promoted moral courage, not just in combat but in speaking truth to power. So Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire, encouraged robust to and fro within his team in his search for excellence. Air Marshall Dowding and Air Vice Marshall Park listened to feedback from their pilots and fought their superiors to ensure effective policies and strategies.

4 Things Which Cripple Decision Making

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Chip and Dan Heath have done it again. After the success of Made to Stick and Switch, they’ve written a another great book entitled Decisive. As the title suggests it’s all about how to make good decisions. You might think that’s not too difficult a task to anyone with more than a modicum of common sense. But as Chip and Dan open up the topic you quickly realise the number of ways in which our decision making can become clouded. They give four villains of decision making as follows:

  1. “Narrow-framing” . . . where we unnecessarily cut down the number of possible choices or solutions, focusing on the obvious or visible.
  2. “Confirmation bias” . . . where we jump to an early conclusion and then only listen to the evidence that supports the conclusion we were already hoping for.
  3. “Short term emotion” . . . where our desire to avoid pain means we make a decision that may be easier in the short term, but will cause more pain in the long term.
  4. “Overconfidence” . . . you know you’re right so press on regardless of other opinion or evidence.

So, perhaps unsurprisingly, Chip and Dan’s solution to these problems runs as follows:

  1. Widen the options . . . broaden the net, research, listen to a variety of opinions
  2. Reality test your assumptions . . . Think clearly and honestly about the pros and cons of various solutions. Deliberately employ a ‘devil’s advocate’ step for each scenario.
  3. Attain distance and perspective . . . space and time are required for big decisions. Don’t rush the process
  4. Prepare to be wrong . . . plan for an uncertain future; you may have to revisit the issue again. That’s better than setting something in stone and refusing to reconsider.

Which, rather neatly, makes the acronym WRAP – easy to remember, perhaps much harder to practise!

Latest Stats on Contemporary Views of Christianity and Church

statsChristianity Today published some latest research stats on contemporary views of Christianity and Church. Here are some that I found most striking.

  • 57% of people in England identify as Christians (only 9% are practising) . . . you can view that two ways. You could lament the massive number of nominal Christians; or you could see that as a whole load of people who’d be sympathetic to a conversation. I’d go for the latter.
  • 40% of people do not realise Jesus was a real person who actually lived . . . now that’s just scary. We can assume very little nowadays. We have to explain even the most basic things in our preaching, teaching, and conversation.
  • 41% of Christians attribute their faith to growing up in a Christian home . . . that means helping parents has to be a higher priority than it is for many of us.
  • 44% of Christians credit a friend for introducing them to the faith . . . that’s quite striking isn’t it. If 41% attribute ‘growing up in a Christian home’ that means that a large proportion of people who become Christians out of non-Christian homes are doing so through friends. So we need to help our folk build friendships and talk naturally about their faith.

A Brilliant Resource You’re Probably Not Using

libraryIn my first church job I had the privilege of working for a great boss – a man who was warm, kind, encouraging – a mentor who taught me more than he’ll ever know. He had a little office, a ton of books, and an old computer that just about enabled him to access e-mail. He was old-school in the best sense – a man of the word and prayer, a faithful pastor of the flock for the long haul.

15 years on, there’s a plethora of great resources for busy pastors to make use of – blogs, Bibleworks, Feedly, Evernote, Prayermate, online bible reading plans, daily dose of Hebrew or Greek, social media tools and opportunities, kindles, iPads, iPods, pod-casts, YouTube, TED talks, smart devices to synchronise calendars, contacts, mail etc etc etc. Many of these offer great resources and opportunities (as well as great distraction).

But here’s an old school resource you may have forgotten about. It exists in almost every town in the country and is absolutely free. It’s your local library. I know what you’re thinking – twin set and pearls, purple rinse, half-rimmed specs, musty smells, crumby crime and cookery books. Alas, no. Well, yes, but also so much more. My local library has a nice cafe, free wifi, comfy chairs in a light airy setting, and all sorts of books on subjects such as leadership, history, psychology, sociology, politics, economics, etc etc. I can’t say I use it as often as I might, but, having spent a couple of hours in there last week I must use it more. It’s a different environment, which I often find helpful in getting the creative juices flowing in prep; I can research topics without having to buy the books; I can surf the net, and drink coffee all in a place that is charging me a rent of precisely £0!

So why don’t you give it a go. Next time you’re preparing a talk, spend a morning in your local library and see what you get out of it.