Review of “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church”

Renewal of faith and the churches mission is often resourced by a return to the sources of faith and mission. Alan Kreider has written a very good historical reconstruction of the nature of the church in its first few centuries that has much to provoke and teach us today. His Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Baker Academic, 2016) provides a very careful historical reconstruction of the life of the early church. It focuses on the centrality of catechesis, baptism and worship in forming Christian habits that bring out attractive lives of faith. This is a big picture presentation that assumes a general uniformity in the life of the church but with a clear respect and detailed engagement with particular primary sources and with appropriate reference to secondary sources. It is a very readable summary for those interested in how the church lived its faith under Roman rule – suitable for those new to this topic as well as refreshing to those already aware of some of the details. Overall Kreider is arguing that the early church grew through the distinctiveness of the Christian lives being lived that were attractive to others. I would have liked a greater integration of life and theology and the study of Robert Wilken on The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is helpful here. Also, it is interesting that despite the desire for distinctiveness the argument seems largely that the early church was understandably shaped by the Roman culture it inhabited. The theme of inculturation would be worthy of further study in this regard as would the Jewish sources that also shaped the early church.

Patience is the virtue that Kreider sees as the key distinctive of the early church. He provides very helpful chapters on this theme, particularly drawing on Cyprian, Tertullian and Augustine. This is an often neglected virtue that is important to restore in the life of the church and its mission. Kreider links patience with the seeking of peace, rather than violence, and living Christian faith in situations where we are not in control and do not hold the power. To focus on the God who is in control and works through all things to grow His church is an important challenge of faith. Kreider draws gently on his Mennonite background in developing this theme. Having said this, the theme of patience occurs more at the start and end of the book and is less convincing as a theme through the central chapters that outline the practice of the early church. Perhaps it is being over-stretched to act as the characteristic of the early church. Also the critical questions raised in regard to a focus on patience are too quickly skirted over to my mind. Constantine and Augustine are the bad guys who negatively transformed an early church focus on patience to an impatience and power utilising approach to mission. In situations of oppression and heresy, and in situations where Christians do hold power, it is right to ask what positive difference this might make to our understanding of patience and mission. In line with his stress on patient and persuasive arguments Kreider presents a positive interpretation of the early church but, to my mind, gives less space to a more critical engagement with different views.

The presentation of the early church is seeking also to provide a model for the churches mission today. It repeatedly emphasises that the church grows through attraction and the early church had little mission strategy or travelling in mission. This approach has much in common with contemporary approaches that focus on discipleship and habitus for mission, although such sources are not engaged with. It helpfully highlights advantages in a counter-cultural approach to mission, yet it fails to engage deeply with the vast literature on mission, particular in regard to critiques of attractional models of church life. It does not engage the biblical materials and so leaves open the question as to why the model of the early church presented differs so much from that of Jesus and the church in Acts. The work of Erkhard Schnabel on Early Christian Mission presents a wider engagement that has much to offer this discussion. Also, the work of Michael Green on Evangelism in the Early Church, which inspired Kreider, is not critically engaged with. Despite general engagement with mission through Andrew Walls, Kreider’s argument for the nature of the churches mission is least convincing.

In short, our faith and mission should be open to renewal through a fresh reading of the life of the early church. Such a renewal does not rely on agreement with all of Kreider’s argument and indeed may gain from working through disagreements. His book stands as an excellent example of careful historical reconstruction and engagement with the theme of patience. I would have liked a more nuanced and critical engagement with better appreciation of mission thinking. But it is hard not to gain from reading such a good study that illuminates a variety of subjects.


Provided in Renewal?

Looking back over the last year in the life of the churches I serve I can see that the Lord has been showing us his provision and yet also our needs. We have seen the Lord provide again in our regular worship and experience of the Holy Spirit at work in our midst. We continue to be surprised and encouraged by our mission communities and seeing new people join communities of faith. There are real glimpses of a renewal of faith, community and life that stir us on. As we seek Jesus in prayer so we have seen His provision in different areas of our lives together.

Yet at the same time we have been reminded of our struggles, often in very practical ways. A heating system that has broken down without easy fixing before next winter… areas of church life without people to oversee them… illness, family and work pressures wearing people down. At times we have also been aware of the wider pressures Christians face in the world and the challenges facing the Church of England in terms of attendance, finance and vocations. At an election time in the UK the needs of our nation are also regularly brought to our attention. Sometimes this is just to point out what is wrong and attach blame to someone else – there are many needs to be met. Our faith is being tested in the face of provision and need.

This testing of faith has brought us together, stimulated prayer, challenged our vision, caused us to embrace change and take steps as the Spirit leads. But not always! The temptation is always to see the needs as too great and the provision too little and to leave our faith unchanged. We will see loss and find hope difficult. It is hard to measure progress. Maybe we have to change more radically and let go of more if we are see ways forward. Often we also need our eyes open to the provision that is there, if not what we expect or always want to see. Somehow, in the Lord’s hands, renewal brings real provision yet without addressing the needs in the way we might want it to.

Part of the call of Christian faith today is to keep walking in the provision of the Spirit in times both of plenty and lack. It is to walk the way of Jesus through the ever real Easter story of Cross and Resurrection. Yes, renewal provides for us a richness of provision that witnesses to the generous and overflowing mercy of God. Yet this is so often seen in, through and alongside the deep needs of our selves, churches, communities and nation.

Renewal in the Desert?

Renewal is often experienced as a highly emotional event, spoken of as a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit. People remember the day of Pentecost in Acts 2 or the histories of revivals in which people fell down as overcome by the Spirit and either rested in the Lord or cried out as feelings were drawn out of them. Renewal has such a positive image that is sought after – for who can not want their faith and life renewed? However it does seem a bit removed from the ordinary yet alone the difficult seasons of life. It is pertinent to ask whether renewal has anything to say when things are tough. Is it possible to have renewal in the desert?

It is maybe helpful to ask what is going on in renewal events. They may be high on emotion but they are (at best) also high on life change. My experience was of repeated experiences of the Spirit that led to a changed outlook and ultimately changed vocation. It was if some of my hidden self came to light and there was a fresh freedom to follow Christ in new ways. Renewal is about transformation of people so that their true, creative, life-giving selves come to the fore with Christ, and all that has held them back is drawn back and removed. Think about how the disciples changed after Pentecost: no longer locked away but confidently speaking out. Suddenly all that Jesus taught them came alive and put into action. This is inevitably emotional but leads to new steady ways of life and witness. We might ask: may not there be other ways to such results, also empowered by the same Spirit?

Interestingly, one of the ways in which Thomas Merton explores how such a true self comes to greater light is through contemplation in the desert. It is in the desert that we are enabled to find our true identity in Christ and to walk out in compassionate freedom. This too is emotional, but through the struggles that come when things in life seem to be taken away from us. The key Bible passage is Luke 4 in which Jesus is sent in the power of the Spirit into the wilderness. Here is a tough uncovering of true motivations amidst internal and external pressures, with Satan there to knock Jesus off course. The desert way is one very much discovered alongside struggles within the wider culture and the struggle for fresh Christian identity at times when even the church seems to have surrendered to cultural ways of progress. Renewal also comes as we find the Spirit driving us into places of loss, of struggle, of weakness and inability – if we allow that Spirit to shape us around the Word, around Christ, unlocking our true selves which are different to the expectations of those around us. For “water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert” (Isaiah 35:6).

Here is a two-fold way of renewal – through experience of light, joy and creativity; and through loss, pain and struggle. Both are a part of the Spirit’s work in helping us discover more of who we are with Christ. Both have an inevitable emphasis on the love of God that is experienced. It is to be enfolded in God’s love that melts our hearts and leaves us full of transforming wonder. It is to trust in God’s love that makes sense of the desert places and enables them to be places of transforming hope. It is the cataphatic and apophatic ways of traditional spirituality that are held together by the one Holy Spirit who searches our hearts to affirm and challenge. It is a journey in hope through all things.

So let us pray for renewal… but being careful not to tell the Lord which of these patterns we need to follow! Our heart must be set on the transforming love of God more than the ways in which we will be led to discover it. After all, such is the risk of following the living God.

Pivotal points in Renewal

I was talking with someone last week who told of how their life was completely changed as their eyesight was healed. After many years of living with pain and limited sight and needing the help of drugs a suprising offer of prayer made all the difference. It was a very liturgical and formal in style, picking up on James 5, yet the results that followed were tested by the medics and no drugs have been needed in the decades since. A cause for praise and celebration! A turning point in one person’s life that later led on to a call to a particular ministry. Looking back we can see times in our lives that are pivotal and shape all that follows afterwards. It is as if renewal becomes focused on an instant of transformation that is so deep and yet only really appreciated by its effects afterwards.

Such pivotal points tend to be linked with particular people – the person who prayed with us, the author whose book opened our eyes, the preacher whose word struck home to our hearts. Renewal is relational and the Holy Spirit leads us into truth in relational ways that involve both actions and thoughts. Such is the way of Jesus. Some of these people who are special to us become pivotal in the lives of many because somehow their story and ministry speaks to many different people, summing up both their struggles and hopes. These then become recognised leaders in renewal who are often looked at from afar and yet made who they are because of their relationships with ordinary people.

For me there were friends who enabled me to experience the Spirit in ways that drew me to Jesus and changed my who outlook on life. Reflecting back I can see how these particular people were guided by the wider charismatic renewal shaped by David Watson, one of the pivotal leaders recognised by many. Watson greatly enabled Anglican and ecumenical developments in charismatic renewal, highlighting the need for renewed churches and not just renewed individuals. The Spirit draws people relationally into renewal and hence into fellowship with others, often across the differences that seem to divide us. Watson also introduced John Wimber to the UK and he empowered further renewal through his emphasis on the Spirit’s gifts given to all.

Yet pivotal leaders can only be recognised over time and often come as rather a surprise. When Watson arrived to pastor a church of less than 20 people it would have been hard to imagine what was to come. He didn’t always get great support from the wider church or encouragement from other leaders. More recently he has faded from the memory of many as other more charismatic leaders have taken his place. But this does not take away from his influence that is perhaps best measured in the people he got to know and who were changed as the Spirit worked through relationships.

We often look and long for new moves of the Holy Spirit, new points that will become pivotal in our lives and the life of the church. Yet rather than the dramatic and most in the news, perhaps we are best looking for the relational – who are we drawing close to? who is enabling us to encounter the Spirit? which others are being changed in a similar way? We need to examine what is happening in our lives through others. In this we can be helped by remembering back to pivotal moments for ourselves and the wider church – these encourage us and help provide the wisdom needed to discern the significant moves of the Spirit. Then in time we will see how something everyday became part of a wider move of God.

The Spirit comes to remind us of the Lord’s work and words in the past; the Spirit is beside us in communicating relational truth; the Spirit will show us greater things, pivotal times that will change us and through us help transform the world. Let us seek to look back wisely, discern truthfully, and walk confidently with our God.

Conversations for Renewal

Many of us can testify to times of spiritual renewal when the Holy Spirit has brought fresh life and vitality to our faith and transformed the direction of our lives. I can remember during the 1980s how my faith was brought to life through the charismatic renewal enlivening churches and universities. There was an energy and creativity to the worship, the exciting practice of charismatic gifts and the reality of healing and freedom from things that had held us back. In a world of many pressures when energy, creativity and freedom seem squeezed to the fringe we still need the freshness of the Spirit. Yet thinking back there was something more going on that is often forgotten. Behind the fresh results of renewal lay a season of thinking things out alongside others, of struggling to understand the Bible, of sharing pain and loss, reading testimonies and theologies, raising questions and seeking after God in prayer. The way into renewal was a relational one, bringing all of life into conversation with others, never simply an individual one.

There is a temptation to forget this in the seeking after renewal: the temptation to seek simply after the practices that brought good results in the past. Yet over time the practices of worship, prayer, liturgy and service seem to lose some of their life. Maybe people start saying that the Spirit is no longer with our churches and drift away to look for “where the Spirit is now.” Maybe we keep going with the outward practices secretly hoping that the inner reality will reappear but finding it hard to admit that something is wrong. When the pressure to keep generating results has become a way of life it is hard to find space to work out what might be wrong. In reality we may have lost the heart of renewal. We have lost the relational heart, the conversational heart – with God and with others. Looking back, renewal was never simply about similar people agreeing on everything and doing specific activities that guaranteed the presence of the Holy Spirit. It was a journey in which difference was embraced, conversations (and even arguments) entered into, and experimental practices attempted. Renewal does wane but often because the Lord wants to keep us fresh in our conversations with him and others so further renewal can engage the world we face today. Renewal changes its form and practices over time but the relational heart remains.

So do we want a fresh spiritual renewal? Do we want more of the Holy Spirit in our communities? Then who are we talking to who is different to us? Which books are we reading that we disagree with? What experiments are we attempting in worship and mission? How are we trying to relate to those outside church life? How is more of our life being brought before God and others? Over this last year my experience of charismatic renewal within the evangelical tradition met a rather different kind of renewal: monastic renewal in the Roman Catholic church. I vividly remember my alarm going at 3am whilst staying at a monastery so that I could get up for the start of prayers at 3.15am! Not my best time for prayer! It was a very different experience. Yet as I spent a few days in the whole day rhythm of prayer something began to be born again in me: that desire for worship, prayer, Scripture and renewal that is about all of life and not just a part of it. Renewal is transformed as every aspect of our life and each part of our days is brought to God. As I returned so comments were made about my having new energy and ideas. It is hard to see this experience as a world-changing dynamic of renewal – yet it is a personal, relational experience of the Spirit that is slowly changing the life of one person and through them is helping others.

In a world of pressures in which difference seems to drive division and separation, do we not need to relearn ways in which the Lord can use difference to draw us into fresh life? Can we allow our understanding and practice of renewal be transformed through its relational heart? The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us. Let us rejoice, be glad and welcome change.

Renewal for transformation

There is a great need for spiritual renewal that is focused on the transformation of the world. In seeking renewal there is always the temptation that it becomes a way of looking at better things just for ourselves. After all, seeking God’s presence has brought us such richness. Yet such life-giving experiences can gradually, over time, turn into systems of belief and practice that need to be upheld in themselves. Partly out of a desire to share the good news of meeting with Jesus that others may experience it also, but also out of a desire not to lose the experience, systems are created that we begin to hold strongly to. Slowly such systems can become ends in themselves and so are spoken of, written about and preached as if they are definitive ways to know the transforming power of God rather than tentative ways of explaining how some people have been transformed. Then there is a temptation to solidify the boundaries around the system to be clear who is inside and who outside. Hostility begins to replace grace and it seems right to speak or act strongly against those who differ from us.
        Such a process is one way into seeking to understand the tragedies of our world in which faith plays some part. The appalling deaths in Paris this last week; those driven from their homes in Iraq and spending the winter in tents; those whose histories are deeply scarred by the crusades of the past. What might have started out as a faith that brought light, life and hope for struggling communities becomes a need to force others to conform to a system of belief. It is not that thought out belief in itself is wrong – we all need systems of thought that make sense of our world and encourage right action. Yet it is how we hold these systems that is vital. We are to hold lightly to the precious understanding and experiences we have been granted over life, always seeking how they can serve others rather than simply sustain ourselves. Faith requires renewed openness to others, especially those different to us and even those we see of as our enemies.
        How do we protect faith from the temptations that come? One way is keep en emphasis on renewal – on keeping our faith full of life, of the Holy Spirit who keeps us in ways of holiness. Yet this needs to be linked with the wider purpose of transforming the world and not just ourselves or those like us. Theologically this is rooted in creation and re-creation. God has created all things good, brooding over the earth by the Spirit (Genesis 1), and despite a falling away from goodness the earth groans in the Spirit until it is re-created by the Spirit (Romans 8). To seek the Holy Spirit is to be immersed in the presence of the God who loves the whole world and who seeks its transformation in ways of holiness. The way to this vision is not one of hostility or force but rather a humble reliance on the Spirit to guide and a recognition that good appears in surprising places. With Jesus we see hostility turned into friendship, lament turned into hope and loss enfolded in love.
        Christian faith is kept alive inasmuch as it seeks the Holy Spirit for the transformation of the world. There many temptations along the way, yet the Spirit gently invites us to humble, risky and vulnerable ways of sharing the good news of Jesus. It is not an easy path and is often misjudged by others yet it is the path of light and hope in a world often shrouded by darkness.