One of the defining moments over the summer has undoubtedly been the riots, initially in London, then in the Midlands and in Manchester, and, on a lesser scale, in other areas of England. Though we do not seem to have been affected in Scotland there is no room for complacency (there but for the grace of God go we, both individually and nationally!). In seeing so frequently on our TV screens pictures of devastation and wreckage, of shops and cars being set on fire, of violence and pillaging, it is possible to become less sensitive to the losses and injuries sustained by so many, and to their feelings of annoyance, anger, anxiety and fear. What is particularly disappointing in the reporting has been the comparative lack of a Christian voice, though various churches and Christian bloggers have made excellent contributions to the debate. Public opinion seems to oscillate between two main opposing views: on the one hand, those who would advocate an austere, ‘get tough’ approach, with water canons, curfews, plastic bullets, corporal punishment, and the deployment of the army on the streets; on the other hand, those who would plead for an increase in public expenditure to target resources to the young people in the areas affected, to create new jobs, provide community programmes, more youth clubs, and to promote a greater understanding of the backgrounds from which some of the worst offenders have come.
However, if we can change the level of debate beyond that of second causes, are there issues for us here in Sandyford? The first is to avoid the temptation of engaging in the blame culture, while at the same time condemning unequivocally what has happened and recognising the need for justice for the guilty and for restoration of what has been destroyed. What we are seeing is a particular fulfilment of the words of Solomon (Proverbs 29: 18): ‘Where there is no vision [of God] the people perish’, or in another translation, ‘Where there is no vision the people cast off restraint’. One of the most disturbing aspects of the riots was the seeming inability of so many to distinguish between right and wrong. However, as an integral part of a society lacking a moral and spiritual framework, we have to take our share of responsibility for this vacuum. How often did church leaders of old, who themselves had kept the faith and had not strayed from their commitment to all that was good, pray on behalf of a guilty nation ‘Lord we have sinned…’. Furthermore, some of the root causes underlying the raids on shops, in particular, those of human acquisitiveness and greed, are sins to which we are not immune, even if we may not ourselves indulge in rioting and stealing.
A second issue is the need to give more place in our prayers for all who have rule and authority over us. In view of the complex nature of the riots for which there would seem to be no easy short-term fix and the divided opinions within the House of Commons and local councils, the exhortation to pray for ‘the powers that be’ (in particular, for MPs and local government) is of paramount importance.
A third timely issue is the incentive for outreach. One of the paradoxical sayings of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones with regard to London in the 1960s was that the worse things became the more hope he had. And the latest crisis, which following on from the recession and the ongoing financial instability, does give new opportunities to preach ‘a better way’. Ultimately, a more lasting solution, and one which gives real hope to people, is that indirect revolution in which society is regenerated through the changed lives of its individuals who surrender to the claims of Jesus Christ. And how appropriate as we embark on a new session of outreach, the programme for which is outlined in the report from our Outreach Coordinator, Douglas Humphris (pp. 6-9). The programme has been included not just for information but to encourage prayer from all readers of the Congregational Record, whose support in the past has been of inestimable value. As can be seen, the programme is designed largely to encourage friendship evangelism, which according to surveys, is the most productive form of evangelism, accounting for over 80% of recent conversions. One wonders how many of those caught up in the riots had Christian friends. One of the dangers these days is for us to be so busy in our Christian gatherings that we do not give time to non-Christian friends. Some have even said that they do not have any friends who are not Christians. The Living Room, the Drop-in, and the lunches, among other initiatives, have been introduced essentially to build up relations with people in the parish and to provide opportunities to bring friends to church.
In outreach, Sandyford has not been primarily an events-based church. Underpinning all that Douglas has set out is our continuing focus on biblical ministry and prayer. After all, as Paul said, God’s way of salvation is ‘through the foolishness of preaching’, a principle so sadly neglected in the Church of Scotland, where the appointment of social workers would sometimes take precedence over ministers of the gospel. The major impetus of the early church, however, came from its commitment to prayer and to preaching, both in the form of exposition of the Scriptures and in gossiping the gospel (Acts 8: 4). While our objective would be to bring people to Jesus, so that they might enjoy fellowship with Him, we would also aim that those professing faith would be added to a worshipping community and would have the privilege of service. A pastor in Glasgow spoke to me about his concerns concerning consumerism with regard to church attendance. Some would profess faith as free-lance Christians. The gospel then becomes a kind of commodity which is acquired for all its benefits, but at little cost. Now, lest there be any confusion, let us re-affirm that the heart of the gospel is God’s free gift of Jesus. One of the greatest insults to God is to believe that we can add to the sacrifice on Calvary and in some way purchase our salvation. Yet, God’s purpose in saving us is not just to give us all peace and joy in believing (wonderful though that is) and a serenity in the midst of the kind of trials and difficulties like those faced by Christians living in riot-torn areas. It is also for service. What a testimony from some of the London churches which opened their doors to victims and offered help within their communities! However, there is often a gap between the numbers professing faith in various churches and the smaller cohort of those who gather for worship and prayer and for service. One pastor in a church in England said that every week around 20 people in his church would profess faith. Yet when visiting this church I found that the numbers seemed to be static. Not that we should assess spiritual growth by numbers. However, an unresolved question to which the pastor himself no doubt would have liked an answer: where had the thousand who had professed faith during the year gone? In that regard, the in-reach nurturing programmes which are being set up by Douglas will, we hope, help equip those coming to Sandyford to be better able to serve within our congregation, and beyond.
However, the challenge with regard to outreach in Sandyford is not just to the Outreach Coordinator, who would be particularly grateful for support and for prayer, but to all of us who are perhaps the only evangelists whom those in our circle of friends and relatives will ever come across. In the Book of Acts (2: 47) it is recorded that ‘the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved’. Can this happen in our day as we all continue to seek how we might reach those who are lost without Christ? Why not?
With very best wishes
Session ClerkView All Letters