by Andrew J Barker
I can still remember holidays with my wife in a small tent that we could fit on a small spot in Mid Wales or by a wee burn in Scotland. Later we managed to squeeze in the carry cot but after that we had to get a bigger tent. And then when in effect we were 4 adults an even bigger one!
As the tent got bigger we had to ensure the guys and the stakes were strong enough for the extra canvas so we did not get blown away and we kept the rain out. Later still I was involved in erecting a large marquee and I noted not only the stronger guy ropes but also the much bigger stakes that need a sledge harmer like tool to get them well driven in.
Perhaps the prophet Isaiah might have understood this experience because he wrote Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back: lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. (Chapter 54 verse 2, emphasis mine) The context here is mind blowing.
Time to expandL~
Isaiah chapter 54 is full of good news and has an expansive feel, rather like some feel is the case with the exciting new church developments today. It includes a picture of expanding family life even though it starts with a barren woman! No wonder a bigger tent is required. Then we read of marriage restored and enriched followed by a devastated city rebuilt. These are all wonderful pictures to reflect on but the prophet also faces the realities of a fallen world.
There are some exciting things going in the Church of Christ that could be likened to “enlarge the tent”. We have new forms of church, cell church, café church, pub church, church for the unchurched, internet church, emergent church etc etc
Those who know me will be aware that I am keen that we do reach out with the Gospel in all sorts of ways. ‘By all means save some’ is the basis of a mission my wife and I have supported for many years and, of course, this challenge has its roots in the apostle Paul.
However I wonder if we need to pay attention to the advice of the prophet Isaiah. We may be enlarging and lengthening but are we strengthening the stakes? Are we in danger of being blown away when storms come?
Banging in the stakesL~
What do the stakes represent? Perhaps words from an old hymn helps us here; ‘grounded firm and deep in the Saviours love’. Are we firmly grounded in the grace and truth we find in Jesus and His Word? I believe we need to pay attention to four key stakes highlighted by John Stott in the early chapters of his book “Issues facing Christians today.” [Latest fully revised edition published last year]. These are stakes of grace and truth to make the most of the enlarged tent of contemporary church life. John’s Gospel chapter one tells us of Jesus tabernacling or tenting Himself and being full of grace and truth. Perhaps this is a very relevant link with Isaiah chapter 54.
The first vital stake is creation by God (Genesis chapters 1 and 2 etc) with its many implications for how we value fellow human beings and the whole universe. Secondly the fall of humanity (Genesis chapter 3 etc) that enables us to be realistic about human nature rather than either pessimistic like some Christians or optimistic like others. Both stakes need to be hammered in well to properly understand the needs and the state of the world. It was interesting to note that this years Reith lecturer had a very optimistic view of how humanity can meet the contemporary world challenges yet acknowledged ‘a darker side of human nature.’
Historically some evangelical Christians have been strong on sin and the fall without having a developed understanding of creation. Recent years has seen a change here, especially helpful as we engage in the debate about the environment, etc. Of course stake 2 is echoed in the second ALL of Methodism. We believe ALL people need to be saved. The apostle Paul wrote ‘All have sinned fallen short of God’s glory.’
The third stake to be hammered in well is the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. What happened on the cross and the implications for living, preaching and teaching are foundational and life giving. Evangelical Christians have had to argue for a full Biblical understanding over the years. Understanding of the cross and its implications were outlined brilliantly by John Stott in his masterly book ‘The Cross of Christ’. More recently Howard Marshall read a wonderfully clear and gracious paper at a symposium on what the Bible teaches on the death of Christ. Howard shows how substitution is part of the warp and woof of the Bible’s teaching on atonement. It is difficult to deny the substitutionary death of Christ and claim to be a fully Biblical Christian.
It seems to me that some talking about new ‘forms’ of church seem to be a little weak on this stake, the extensive atoning work of Jesus Christ in cross and resurrection, as well as stake number 2. In the desire to engage with people - a very commendable goal - there seems to be something of a hanging loose to the fundamentals of the faith as revealed in the Bible. Here of course another ALL agrees with stake 3. ALL people can be saved, because our Lord Jesus Christ lived our life, died our death and rose to open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers. IF we use Gospel pictures then ‘lost people matter to God’ and the cross proves it. It may be of note that Isaiah chapter 54, with its expansive feel, follows chapter 53 that highlights the Suffering Servant - pierced for our transgressions, taking our punishment and wounds.
My involvement with and research on Fresh Expressions would suggest ‘lost people’ matter to us but sometimes without us, in John Wesley’s words, ‘offering them Christ’. Unless we offer the crucified, risen Saviour they will not be found and saved.
Finally a stake that has been rediscovered by a number of theologians in recent years is the final coming of Jesus as Lord at the end of time. It is this key stake that colours all Christians believe- we are supremely people of hope because that Christ who died and rose for our salvation is going to bring it all to a glorious finale. Many of His parables spoke of the coming of the Son of man with the clouds and the final division of human kind in terms of wheat and weeds in Matthew chapter 13 and between wise and foolish maids in Matthew 25. Then there will be righteousness and justice in God’s renewed world. Against the common perception C.S Lewis said that those who believed most fervently in the life to come were the most use in this world. All the 4 stakes influence our living and speaking now.
Enlargement and solidity.L~
These two words are one commentators comment on Isaiah 54 verse 2. Other writers see the need for that ‘solidity’.
The vital need to strengthen the Biblical stakes is made in the book The Drama of Scripture. [Reviewed in Headline last year] “The dominant cultural story of the secular Western world has been twisted by idolatry. If as believers we allow this story (rather than the bible) to become the foundation of our thought and action, then our lives will be shaped not by the story of Scripture but the lies of an idolatrous culture.” (page ix )
Os Guinness has written about the American scene, which I would suggest has echoes in the UK. He sees the need to be guided by theology and not contemporary ideas. ‘Contemporary evangelicals are no longer people of truth. Only rarely are they serious about theology. Both problems are a tragedy beyond belief. A solid sense of truth is foundering in America at large. Vaporised by critical theories, obscured by clouds of euphemism and jargon, outpaced by rumour and hype, overlooked for style and image, and eroded by advertising, truth in America is anything but marching on” He goes on to argue that evangelicals are being attracted “by movements that have replaced theology with emphases that are relational, therapeutic, charismatic, and managerial (as in church growth). Whatever their virtues, none of these emphases gives truth and theology the place they require in the life and thought of a true disciple." (‘No God but God’: p 18)
This may seem a bit far fetched but I believe has enough truth in it to cause us to stop and think or else we shall find we have, as the saying goes, church a mile wide and an inch deep. This is how many describe the church in Africa. It is growing in numbers but how deep is it? Such churches will easily be blown around by every wind of doctrine! Rosemary Dowsett of Overseas Missionary Fellowship, an experienced missionary and mission teacher, addressed a recent Global Connections missions conference with these words. “If theology is quite literally the study of the nature and wisdom of God, what could possibly be more fundamental to authentic discipleship? And what could be more crucial in the practice of mission, and in the responsibilities of mission leadership, than being aligned with the truth about God.”
Rosemary went on to recognise the increasing interest in spirituality, which many of the fresh expressions, new forms of church also recognise, saying: “There is a widespread interest in spirituality, but even among professing Christians that may be divorced in fact, if not in intention, from the-God-who-is-there. It may have more to do with contemporary post-Enlightenment preoccupation with self and self-fulfilment than with the objective reality of the Triune God.”
A recent book, ‘Spirituality Old and New’ by Donald Bloesch, helps us to recover authentic spiritual life, in the midst of what some see as the current ‘amorphous spirituality’.
As we pray for great expansion in the church, as we look at Fresh Expressions of mission and church we must hold fast to those truths, not as dry academic doctrine but as helping us have the Lord’s view of humanity and the universe. Then the Holy Spirit of revival can enliven both these truths and us. We will then see the lost truly won and fully discipled in the faith once delivered to the saints. Or to put it in other words- truly effective evangelism needs a truly evangelical foundation and motivation.
The Revd Andrew J Barker is a member of staff in Melton Mowbray Methodist Circuit with a special role in developing Fresh Expressions. Andrew is also a Trustee of the Malt Cross, a Fresh Expression in city centre Nottingham that is engaged in the 'night time economy' of clubs and pubs and visiting lecturer at Cliff College.
Headline, Autumn 2007, pp.13-14.