I’m sure that most readers of this blog have, like me, received about thirty emails over the past few weeks telling us about the buses driving through central London proclaiming that “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” If you haven’t heard about it, you can read the story here.
According to guardian.co.uk, Rev George Hargreaves of the Christian Party responded by creating a bus advert which proclaims: “There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.”
Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church has booked 25 supersize bus advertisements, using the line “There IS a God, BELIEVE. Don’t worry and enjoy your life.”
The Trinitarian Bible Society has taken a less temperate approach, using a line from the Bible to scold nonbelievers: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God,” (taken from Psalm 53.1).
During January, Christianity Today published an article, written by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, with the title: “Jesus Is Not a Brand.” This is all about the common trend today to “market” Jesus.
Frankly I have my doubts about the effectiveness of both these campaigns in London. Did the British Humanist Association, which ran the first advert campaign swing believers into becoming non-believers? And did the other organisations succeed in convincing non-believers into becoming Christians? (I couldn’t help but finding it humourous that the Christians couldn’t respond with one united advert and that one group even saw the opportunity, not in convincing people to believe in Christ, but rather to join a political party!)
I get as angry as any Christian when the Name of God is blasphemed. But this is nothing new. When reading Revelation 13, we read about the beast coming from the sea, with seven heads. The seven heads must probably be seen as representing the seven emperors of the Roman empire. Revelation was written in the time of the emperor Domitianus (the seventh emperor). To understand this part in the Bible, a few important things have to be kept in mind. In verse 1 it is said that each head had a blasphemous name. This refers to the practice in those times that the emperors considered themselves as gods. Julius Caesar gave the command that his own statue had to be erected between those of the gods in the temple. Sometimes temples were erected in honour of the emperors. Caligula, who was mentally retarded, demanded that people honour his statue. But the one who surpassed all the other emperors in this practice, was Domitianus. He commanded that the people refer to him as deus et dominus – our lord and our god. The Christians in those days therefore had quite a good understanding of the meaning of blasphemy.
Christians tend to get very heated whenever anything happens which smells of blasphemy. I’m not saying that we should accept this in any way. But I’m wondering why we get so upset. My impression is that, for many Christians, this is more a matter of human rights than anything else. In a report about this campaign it says: “Last month the Advertising Standards Authority received almost 150 complaints that the atheist bus campaign was offensive to Christians, and that the “no God” claim could not be substantiated. However the ASA ruled that the campaign did not break the advertising code, concluding that the ads were an “expression of the advertiser’s opinion and that the claims in it were not capable of objective substantiation”. As such, it said that it was unlikely to mislead or to cause widespread offence.”
When I read the book of Revelation, I never find any indication that the Christians were called to fight fire with fire. Obviously, they did not honour the emperors as gods (and very often paid with their lives because of this). What I do find, however, is encouragement to remain faithful to God within these terrible circumstances: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).
We will never be able to defend the existence of God in a court of law. But representing Christ through the way that we speak and the way that we live might very well convince people that there really is a God. And this may then become the greatest demonstration of the foolishness of those who say that there is no God.
In an attempt to minimise stigma, I find that many people who work with others who are HIV+ or have full-blown AIDS, are reluctant to speak about death. “AIDS is not a death sentence!” we are told and in a certain sense I do agree with this. There are people who have become HIV+ twenty years ago and who are still living productive lives. There has been a great advance in the effectiveness of anti-retroviral therapy (ART) and this medication, linked to a healthy lifestyle could mean that someone who is HIV+ could live a long and healthy life.
Alas, this is not true in countries like Swaziland. ART is available, (unless if the government runs out of medication, which happens every now and then, which means that for a few weeks people have to live without taking the lifesaving medication). Many people starting ART have to stop using the medication when the expense of travelling to a clinic outweighs the advantage of using the medication. And test after test have shown that ART needs to be linked to a healthy diet for it to have a long-term effect on the person with AIDS.
In rural areas in Swaziland this is totally out of the question and with the exception of the few who are earning good salaries, even those who live in one of the larger towns in Swaziland where products such as fresh fruit and vegetables are available, do not have the resources to buy these products. This means that the majority of people who are on ART, have no choice other than to eat maize porridge (the staple food of Swaziland) – which is not unhealthy under normal circumstances, but which does not contain enough vitamins and other micro-nutrients essential to stay healthy while the person carries the HI virus.
Regular readers of this blog will know that we started with a home-based caring project in the southern region of Swaziland in 2005, where volunteers are trained and equipped to take care of the people in their communities who are too sick to look after themselves anymore. For more information on this work, you can go to http://www.swazimission.co.za/English/aids.htm
We have developed a fairly simple report form which each of the 400 volunteer caregivers fill out every month. The 12 groups which we have trained, each have a coordinator who then fill out another form, based on the report forms of the group’s volunteers and then I compile a single report from these 12 forms. I’m not all that interested in reports, but the way in which the form was developed, it is possible to see with a single glance where problems exist, how effectively we are working and also what is happening within the community.
I was wondering today how many of our clients (we prefer to speak of “clients” rather than “patients”) are dying each month. The number of clients are not stable, but on average we have about 1400 people whom we are caring for at this stage (about 3.5 clients per caregiver). To get this number in perspective: A medium to large congregation in South Africa may have around 1400 members. In a normal congregation of this size, there may be one or two funerals per month. But things are totally different in our case. In July 80 of the clients died. In August 54. September 54. October 60. November 29 and December 48. That’s 325 people who died in six months. That’s almost as many people that can travel on an Airbus A300! And this is happening only in 12 small communities in one region of Swaziland. What about all the other communities in the region where we are situated? What about the three other regions in Swaziland?
This is the ugly reality which we need to face. And we can try and be politically correct and tell our clients that AIDS is not a death sentence. Or we can face up to the reality and inform people of the horrible truth and assist them in making vital changes to their lifestyles (being tested, going on ART if they qualify, taking vitamins daily, eating healthy food if available, ensuring that they do not become re-infected with another strand of the HI virus, etc).
Every once in a while we receive reports about breakthroughs which may be coming in the treatment of people who are HIV+. I don’t get excited about these reports anymore. The harsh reality is that I believe that we are losing the battle against AIDS. And the number of people dying is proof to this fact.
I’ve just finished reading Alan Hirsch’s book: The Forgotten Ways. It’s a great book and highly recommended, but be warned: It’s not easy to read. I do most of my reading when I go to bed and I really struggled to work through this book, But it is worthwhile reading it.
In short, Alan wants the church to rediscover it’s true purpose, what he calls mDNA, or the Missional DNA of the church. At the core of the church of Jesus Christ is the desire to reach out to the world. Churches which are not doing this, are acting contrary to how God has wired the church.
I have obviously done a lot of reading on this topic, therefore I can’t say that I had many “aha!” experiences while reading the book. He does however emphasise many things and says it in a way, which, as I read it, I just wished that I could share this with everybody I know.
On page 235 he says something which I have suspected for some time but which he is convinced is the truth. Gordon Cosby, the leader of Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., noted somewhere that in over sixty years of ministry, he has never seen that groups which are formed around a non-missional purpose (prayer, worship, Bible Study, etc) ever ending up becoming missional. It was only those groups which intended from the start to be missional (and usually embraced things like prayer, worship and Bible Study) that ended up doing it.
This corresponds with my own experience. It is impossible to calculate how many people have contacted me over the years with a request to get involved in our work in Swaziland. Usually the conversation goes something like this: “Hi, we are a cell group / Bible Study group / prayer group from xyz congregation and we have heard about your work in Swaziland. We feel that it is important for us to reach out to others and we would like to visit you to find out how we can assist you.”
Being a fairly positive person, I always invite them to come, but at the back of my mind I know that there is a more than 90% chance that nothing will come from the visit. The reason is simple. To be part of a cell group or Bible Study group asks a small investment of your time: 1 – 2 hours per week. And let’s be honest – these meetings are fun. Coffee and cookies are served. There’s a lot of time for interaction. And after worship and prayer you feel revived and ready to tackle the rest of the week.
Involvement in mission asks much more than that. On most Sundays I leave home at 8 in the morning and return home somewhere between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. And that’s just for a church service. Anything happening during the week involves a lot of driving – two hours at the very least – entering places which may make you feel uncomfortable, seeing things that are not nice to see, walking in the scorching sun. After their visit these groups have a lot to say about their experience and always promise to come back again, but more often than not we never hear from them again. They will return to their cell group / Bible Study group / prayer group and will probably never return to Swaziland.
If I have to say why this happens, then it boils down to a lack of vision. A group that is formed without a missional vision, will never be able to become missional. They will merely follow their vision and if it is not a missional vision, they will not become missional.
Is there a solution for the hundreds of thousands of cell and other groups meeting all over the world with the main intention to feed themselves (pun intended)? The only solution I can imagine is that the leader of the group make the decision to change the vision. That should not be to difficult as most of these groups do not have an official “vision”. They just follow the leader. But if the leader could convince them to determine their vision (which can be as simple as to answer the question: Why are we meeting every week?) and then convince them that the true purpose of the church lies in its calling to become a light for the world (or whatever other missional metaphor he or she wishes to use), it is possible that, over time, a group like this could really become missional, using their normal weekly meetings to build themselves up so that they could do more outside the church.
But that’s my optimistic side speaking. If I have to be realistic, I doubt whether any significant number of church groups will ever become missional.