Monday, October 17, 2016

Challenging tribal boundaries

I was curious to examine some history of delicensed Rev. Keith Mascord’s departure from the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.  The curiosity commenced when I heard Mascord on a ABC television panel where he identified that many graduates of Moore Theological College “stop thinking” when they leave the College’s doors.  I cannot fathom that any esteemed theological college would tacitly or explicitly impart upon their students any notion that thought stops at college.  I imagine instead the opposite – that a college would impart a strong desire for a life of enquiry and learning.

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“I now do see that we can nothing know” Faust at the end of his life

There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth – not going all the way, and not starting Buddha

It was in Mascord’s book ‘Faith Without Fear: Risky Choices Facing Contemporary Christians’, 2016 that I found a Mascord reference to “stop thinking”.  The reference is in a chapter that considers casualties of academia.  The casualties arise where professors dare push beyond their institution’s doctrinal positions. The institution turns on the professor and the professor is left to clutch to supporters from outside the institution. After considering some academic casualties, Mascord draws to the following comment on page 100 of the book:

“Challenging tribal boundaries is taboo.  As a result, people either stop thinking
or they become dishonest, both of which are inconsistent with scholarship and the pursuit of truth”.

Now, there is a lot to be said about that comment.  For instance, are the “tribal boundaries” of academic institutions static? How rapidly can the boundaries change? Is it dishonest to ascribe to a doctrinal position where one’s heart is not fully aligned? - that is, is the problem with the scholar not the doctrine?. 

Mascord worries me in his grab on “stop thinking”.  I fear it is like those atheists who purport to have thought beyond the Bible.  Such atheists are want to dismiss the Bible as full of fairy tales, and to dismiss Christians and God-fearing people as mindless zombies.  Mascord justifies his position by proposing that others have stopped thinking just as the atheists critique others for opting for fairy tales.  Where is Mascord’s interest in peer testing his ‘new word’ – an interest that would see the ‘new word’ robustly tested as prophesy (a process that occurs less publicly than through the publication of a book)?

“Stop thinking” seems too trite a take by Mascord.  A man does not merely “stop thinking” if he (robotically) sticks with the boundaries imparted upon him by college.  One can enjoy bountiful thinking within the wonderful boundaries of the doctrine.  One can build on work of scholars that have been before.  One can take a pastoral view and determine how to best translate the learning into meaningful action amongst members of the community.  One can think of how to best impart the teaching upon others.  One can affirm the Articles of Religion on which the boundaries are structured.  Pastor John Piper captured some of these notions in a wonderfully titled book “Think”.

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So, one can think within “tribal boundaries” without being in a state where thinking has stopped.


Note: all links good as at 17 October 2016

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Local church corruption quickly found after Mackay talk

An earlier blog post noted that Hugh Mackay, a leading social researcher, had determined that an intrinsic function of churches, characterised as “corruption”, was a prime reason for people to be repulsed from church.  Mackay suggested that people will largely ignore the corporate corruption of churches (e.g. the child sexual abuse that has been identified through the Royal Commission) until such time that they evidence localised church corruption.  Localised church corruption was considered to take many forms including abuse of standards of practice.
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Sadly, in a sermon earlier this month, I witnessed local church corruption.

In a sermon that otherwise offered a very sound exposition of verses in Acts, there was a flippant point where the preacher turned to identify part of the church building fabric.  I use "flippant" as it represent a turn from the eternal to the passing.

It represents a point in the sermon were I walked out of the church (the second time I had walked from a sermon at that church in the past two years) – principally as a result of abuse of the usual form of oration that we identify as a sermon.  The abuse is quite pronounced in that to make mention of a part of the building fabric is to politicise the sermon.  On reflection one has to ask whether the Biblical text, and sermon theme, were chosen such that the political message could be delivered (which is itself a form of corruption).

I have little personal view on the particular item of the church fabric and yet I know that it was discussed two years prior as part of a request to change the church building.  That request was denied.  In such circumstances, I find it detrimental to the church family that a preacher would perhaps derail sound diplomatic discussion of the future of the item of the church fabric - such discussion being ordinarily due the whole church family - by being so pronounced about that item during a sermon.  Perhaps, corruption was evident in railroading the congregation back again into a church fabric change management process?

Further, the chosen Acts text spoke to the wonderful intent of God to include all persons in the church, yet the flippant pointing to part of the church fabric was an adverse illustration.  It was an adverse illustration in that it was utilised in terms of exclusion of persons.  Approximately, 80% of the sermon was true to the theme of inclusion (and true to the Biblical text) and then the sermon turned to the illustration of exclusion.  I have since researched the history of the item of the church building fabric and have been delighted to comprehend that on sound reading one need not see any form of exclusion but instead the most wonderful example of inclusion.  The sermon could well have been completely true to inclusion and powerfully left all parishioners solidly understanding such theme.

I hope that Diocesan control ensures sound continuing professional education of its clergy such that the sermon format is not corrupted.  This would be appropriate after Diocesan consideration of sermon quality.

We should turn from corruption wherever we see it. 


Note 1: Some may say that I’m idolising sermons.  I’m not.  I’m instead calling for application of standards.  If a church hasn’t the discipline to deliver solidly on its main method of communication then it hardly stands credible for any other communication.  Further, I’m not idolising the item of church fabric – I truly do not hold to a personal position on the item.  Anyone wanting to criticising me of idolatry is then only left to criticise my interest in church family democracy – to that I’m very willing to be critiqued.

Note 2: By private message I will offer a link to the recording.

Note 3: all links good at 10 October 2016

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Smart Synod Sermon Sizing

This blog detected a motion that was to go before the Anglican Diocese of Sydney Synod.  The motion sought to limit sermons to twenty minutes.  I found this a strange consideration for Synod and suggested that the problem may not be with the listener but, in part also with the preacher.

The motion has now been heard.  An amendment was adopted.  Then, the amended motion failed to achieve a required majority.  The full text from the draft minutes is copied below.

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I'm enamoured with the amendment in its reference to "oratory skills ...  in accord with best practice".  Further, preachers are to approach preaching with sober judgement.  

The amended motion supports the idea that the listening audience's competence is only part factor of the quality of comprehension.  The amendment made the motion accord closer to the reality of the problem.

Even with the amendment, I am glad the motion failed to gain support.


Note: Eternity News ran a story on this motion via this link.
10.1 Restricting the length of sermons
Dr David Oakenfull moved –

"Synod notes that –

(a) research suggests that while listening to sermons most adults can focus for only 15-20 minutes before starting to lose attention, and
(b) while we may remember about 70% of what was presented in the first ten minutes of a twenty-minute sermon, we are unlikely to retain more than about 20% of what was presented in the last ten minutes.

Therefore to promote more effective teaching of God’s word, Synod urges ministers and other preachers to restrict the length of their sermons to twenty minutes or less."


The Rev Craig Roberts moved as an amendment to Dr Oakenfull’s motion –

‘In the final paragraph, omit the matter following "Synod urges" and insert instead –

(i) the Archbishop to confer with the Principal of Moore Theological College and the Director of Ministry Training and Development to ensure that the training of our diocesan ministers and preachers in oratory skills is in accord with best practice, and
(ii) ministers and other preachers to think of themselves and their preaching abilities with sober judgment (Romans 12:3-8).".’


Mr Roberts’ amendment to Dr Oakenfull’s motion was carried.

Dr Oakenfull’s motion, as amended, was put but was not carried with 233 votes for and 241 votes against the motion.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Hugh Mackay - Beyond Belief - part 2

It was with great pleasure that I attended a presentation by Australia's leading social researcher Hugh Mackay.  Hugh spoke to themes of his book 'Beyond Belief, How to find meaning, with or without religion, 2016'.
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Hugh fascinated by uncovering an aspect of the Bible that had not had my attention before.  Hugh favourably spoke of church's narratives.  The world is short of narratives and the church can fill this void.

Using the story of the feeding of the five thousand - a story that has Jesus performing a miracle in the multiplication of a very limited resource of food - Hugh pointed out that a great resource of the church was the multiplicity of narrative layers.  In respect the feeding of the five thousand Hugh identified different layers to the narrative of type:

- compassion: Jesus saw that the people were hungry and that they needed to be fed,
- modelling: Jesus wanted to provide an example to his disciples as to how they are to serve God's people, and,
- prophesy: Jesus was depicting to his disciples and the people a vision of heaven.

Further, Hugh recognised that the different layers of narrative serve different purposes in the church, so:

- compassion: may be the entry level, Sunday School narrative,
- modelling: may be the narrative offered by a preacher in a Sunday sermon, and,
- prophesy: may be the narrative that a seminary focuses on in teaching their students.

The church is blessed to have such a resource of narratives and layering to the narratives.  Hugh is blessed to have recognised this.


Hugh Mackay 'Beyond Belief - part 3

It was with great pleasure that I attended a presentation by Australia's leading social researcher Hugh Mackay.  Hugh spoke to themes of his book 'Beyond Belief, How to find meaning, with or without religion, 2016'.
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Hugh spoke to average Australian church attendance, and church pressures in this statistical manner:

- 8% of Australians are regular weekly attendees,
- However, by the time one considers annual church attendance including attendance at pseudo church events such as Christmas carols in the park, 33% of Australians attend church in a given year,
- Yet, 68% of Australians identify as being of one of the faith groups,
- And, enrolment at religious private schools is at an all time high (approximately 50% of New South Wales school children attend faith based schools).

- While Australians ordinarily associate Muslim as a large faith group it is third in Australia to Buddhism (Christianity first).

- Hinduism is the fastest growing faith.  And indeed, in New Zealand, Hinduism is second to Christianity.

- Greater than 70% of weddings are conducted by celebrants.

- While Hugh was initially inclined to think that religious service attendance was waning, the statistics actually show that declines have ceased and growth is evident.  Within the Christian faith, Pentecostalism is growing fastest.  Hugh suggested that global experience indicates that it is never correct to say that religious attendance is on the way out - it instead waxes and wanes.

It strikes me that there is a huge gap between 68% of Australians who identify as being of one of the faith groups and 33% who attend church annually.  It also strikes me unusual there is little traction in securing Sunday attendance of families where a child is in a faith based school.  As to the contrast between 70% weddings conducted by celebrants and the 33% annual church attendance this blog has considered the issue of blushing brides before.


Hugh Mackay: 'Beyond Belief' - part 1

It was with great pleasure that I attended a presentation by Australia's leading social researcher Hugh Mackay.  Hugh spoke to themes of his book 'Beyond Belief, How to find meaning, with or without religion, 2016'.
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Hugh spoke to his findings as to why people were not attending established churches.  He named three key findings.  Fascinatingly, only one of the three findings is extrinsic to church life.  I've sought to summarise Hugh's thoughts here.

Extrinsic factor

Propaganda: Hugh spoke to how industry sells the message to the consumer that it is 'all about you'.  Hugh recognised that this message was antitype the message of the church.  He made a subdivision of industry between the goods market and the experience market (which Hugh referred to as the happiness industry).  In respect the happiness industry, and in support of sound teaching from churches, Hugh spoke of how we humans are wonderfully made to experience an array of emotions and that we are short-changing ourselves by putting priority on happiness. Indeed, Hugh subtly endorsed the Bible as a rich source of how to cope with life's many emotions.

Intrinsic factors

Corruption: Hugh spoke to how most Australians have a good sense of instutionalised church corruption (most evidential displayed in matters before the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse).  However, Hugh suggested that Australians will give a local church a chance.  Where they attend a church and observe no local corruption they tend to let the corporate church corruption sit well in the back of their mind.  However, where they see local church corruption they are repelled by that local corruption and also the corporate corruption that is bought to the fore.  As an example of local corruption (and Hugh gave a number of examples) Hugh spoke of a single mother who expended great energy to get herself and three teenage sons to a Christmas Day church service only to have the three boys made an exhibit of as the Minister sought to critique those who only attended church once a year.

Dogma: Hugh spoke of how people that come to church with some concept of faith often find that rigid dogma is so adverse and so contra to their own understanding that they are repelled.

The extrinsic factor is not new.  I recall hearing John Piper some years ago phrase the same factor as something to the order of "The world is spending of billions of marketing dollars to sell you a lie.  The message that it is all about you is at odds with how it is all about Christ".  It is that worldly message that has made me an avoider of television and has firmly led me to hope that any clergy that spiritually feed me also avoid television.

The intrinsic factors are not new.  Probably all churchgoers hold a 'local corruption' story or two.  In my case, I know of a person who was repelled from church when an approach she made for an apology was met with total disdain.  In another case, I know of someone who refused to re-attend church after some very hateful things were said in respect that person's conduct in leading a children's group.  Finally, I have recently sat through a sermon where extraordinarily the preacher broke from otherwise sound exposition to treat a triviality - a part of the church fabric.  The preacher in that instance politicised an item of church fabric as evil (specifically as "racist").   The corruption here being that the expression of the preacher's opinion belonged in a different communication or forum. 

'Dogma' is always going to be problematic particularly when bringing persons in who were raised in a different denomination.

I was left thinking that Hugh's favouritism to the church in offering a response to the extrinsic factor, and the emphasis of two intrinsic factors, led to a conclusion that churches were their own worst enemy. 

Can the church respond to the conclusions of social research and reach out to unchurched members of the community?


Note: on 13 October 2016 the talk was made available for a short period.  You can link to it here.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Amusing Ourselves to Death

The most incredible thing about the Anglican Diocese of Sydney motion to limit sermons to twenty minutes is that there is an antecedent. 
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The key theme of Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book published in 1985 about media ecology, by Neil Postman, is that television format will come to persuade all other communication formats.  Postman argued that television essentially packaged everything as entertainment – even the nightly news bulletin with its opening pieces about war/famine/petulance and its happy ending of a new panda born at the local zoo.  Postman argued that the thirty minute span of most programs would drag people’s attention spans downward to match.  In this way, television makes us like goldfish.
Of course, thirty minutes of television is rarely thirty minutes of content, as identified in the lyrics to this song:
Endless joy and endless laughter,
Folks living happily ever after.
All you need to make you wise
Is twenty-three minutes (plus advertisements).

Read more: Matilda London Cast - Telly Lyrics | MetroLyrics

I’m not comfortable packaging the delivery of God’s word to a timed format – that’s too worldly.  It stinks as if it is a response to Postman’s prophesy.  The motion is peculiar in that the Anglican Diocese of Sydney model operates such that local ministers are best to preach in response to their knowledge of their local flock (thus favouring individual minister assessment of sermon length).
I want my preachers to be moved by the Spirit to orate as needed to conclude the delivery of the Word.  A quality forty-five minute podcast of a sermon by Pastor John Piper or Pastor John Macarthur is a genuine delight.  Indeed, I even want preaching to post its own battle response against the goldfish-like attention spans that the world has thrust upon us.  And, I certainly do not want my preachers to have any time for television as the Bible tells them all they need to know of the World.
As implied by the title of Postman’s book, do not allow factors of sermon length or format result in death.

Note 1: all links good as at 11 October 2016
Note 2: from another perspective perhaps the problem is not with the audience, but with the preacher.  After all, the preacher need be mindful of the famous Mark Twain quote: "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."
Note 3: I am very pleased that another blog writer referred, via this link.