Salvation from the outside

by Tim Moore

At the beginning of June I was privileged to attend a weekend conference entitled Positive Working Together.  It was hosted by Cliff College and organised by the Discipleship and Ministries Learning Network.  I really wasn’t sure how good it would it be but I can honestly say it was truly excellent.  I sat there listening to speakers talking about conflict management, conflict resolution and conflict transformation never realising they could be different from each other.  I was reminded that dealing with conflict is largely dependent on how well we know ourselves. I also discovered that there is an emotional life cycle of conflict and that there would be times when I was in conflict with someone and wouldn’t know it.  On reflection I have come to realise that when I hear preaching in our churches I am often in conflict but don’t realise just how much.

The keynote speakers drew insights from secular experts and folded them into their own theological understanding.  I heard Rev Dr Justine Allain Chapman talk about her doctoral research and how she used the very latest psychological studies to encourage resilience in our pastors[1] and congregations.  All of this was nothing less than music to my ears – and I asked myself, ‘why don’t we hear about this in church?’ which was quickly followed by ‘why doesn’t the Sunday morning service include secular knowledge to enlighten our theology?’

I have listened to many sermons both inside and outside of Methodism preached by ordained ministers and local preachers alike.  Often it has been as if the preachers have relied on telling the Bible story or describing the characters but never going further and applying learning to our everyday lives, helping us to answer that time-honoured question, ‘who am I really?’ Most preachers have had jobs in secular life but rarely in my experience include their expertise in a theological reflection or sermon.  It occurred to me that if we as a Church are fighting for survival and want to engage the non-churched then we need to start speaking their language and in the process we might find out something about ourselves.

At the conference Gary Williams[2] guided us in a Bible study on 2 Kings 7:3-14 entitled Renewing the Church from the Margins?  The story goes that the king is besieged and is fearful of facing death by starvation.  However, four lepers outside the city walls decide they have nothing to lose and so venture off and to their surprise discover food and salvation which they bring back to the frightened king.  Salvation comes from the outsider.  This idea of salvation from the outside is not new.  Consider King Cyrus in Isaiah 45.  He too is an outsider who brings salvation (the Syro-Phoenician/Canaanite woman in Mark 7 and Matthew 15 leap to mind here)

In my own work as a Mindfulness teacher I have come to realise that secular disciplines have much to teach us about how we view God and how we might live better lives – and I am not talking about syncretism here. I teach public groups, children, school teachers and college lecturers some of whom struggle with low self-worth, over-work, depression and anxiety.  It is amazing how lives can change when we talk about self-compassion and love in a way they understand.[3]

As I drove away from the conference I was left asking myself, ‘why shouldn’t we talk in our Sunday sermons about relevant findings from the secular world which could inform our praxis?’  Surely talking therapies[4] that so many of our congregations access via the GP can illumine our own understanding of who we are and who we are before God.  Perhaps preachers are afraid to stray off the ‘safe path’ or fear they might incur the wrath of the chief steward at the door which keeps them from bringing in tried and trusted ideas from the secular world.  We are fast coming to the time when we, like the lepers will have nothing to lose and everything to gain[5].

[1] Justine Allain Chapman, Resilient Pastors (London:SPCK 2012)

[2] Gary Williams is a Learning and Development Officer in the Discipleship and Ministries Learning Network based in Scotland and Shetland region.

[3] For example, see Christopher Germer, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion (NY: Guilford Press, 2009) and Tim Stead, Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality (London:SPCK, 2016)

[4] By this I mean Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Dialectical Behaviour therapy as examples.

[5] For a useful resource on the interface of church and society see Sara Savage and Eolene Boyd-MacMillan, The Human Face of Church (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007)

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5 thoughts on “Salvation from the outside”

  1. I agree entirely with thoughts about incoporating outside lifetime experience into sermons. I do likewise. You then talk about being able to communicate with the unchurched, alas you use the word PRAXIS. This word is suddenly coming into fashion over last year or so. First noticed it was used a lot in the John Vincent new book, Methodism Unbound. Had to look it up on internet.It means nothing to the common man.
    The most complaints I hear from the Churches I preach at, is that some preachers talk over their heads. Praxis would definately be included in this catagory. Yours in Christ, John Worthington

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    1. All this talk about salvation and praxis and preaching without the contextualized theological engagement of the transatlantic slave trade that shaped the world we live in today is of little importance. The Slave Trade is the most egregious moral and theological crimes committed in man’s history. Deal with this major moral and theological subject rather than dissipating time and energy. The slave trade enormity and abomination for the systematic dehumanization of Africans will be the Canon that Britain and the churches that brutally enslaved Africans will be judged by.

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  2. Yes! (although I agree with the comment above about the term ‘praxis’!)
    We absolutely need to be part of our world… and this includes our use of language and also our relevance to those within the church and those in our communities. One of the most vibrant (and to me – valuable!) church groups I have belonged to was one where faith at work was at the heart of our discussions. Church is a place to talk about work, politics, the media, about self esteem, a place to share joys and very real struggles. I hope and pray that it can become more and more so.
    Thank you for sharing these reflections.

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  3. Thank you for your blog, Tim. I agree that there is such a lot to be gained from applying in our preaching insights from different disciplines. I do try to do this but am conscious that what might seem to be “tried and trusted ideas from the secular world” can turn out to be hotly contested within their own fields. I also find I want more time to introduce complex ideas than a sermon normally allows and so look for other forums to do this. A sermon though can be a good place to wet the appetite. Indeed I find congregations are hungry for accessible insights, perhaps involving stories, which are such a key tool in the Methodist preacher’s kit. A few years ago one discerning member of a congregation said something like this to me about sermons, “we need to be inspired to keep going and be given new insights into how to actually do the things we know we should.” Then she added “stories help a lot”.

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