Monday, November 23, 2015

corinthian corners

Yesterday I handed in my marks for the MTh module that I teach here at SAIACS in Bangalore. Then it dawned on me ... I had just finished my twenty-fifth consecutive year of teaching preaching in the classroom. Even when I have been on sabbatical, a course, or two, has been squeezed in, here and there. There have been students from all the different academic levels: Certificate, Diploma, Degree, Masters, and Doctoral. When I teach preaching, I feel God's pleasure. Always have (apart from the occasional blip).

Early on in those years, I started devising my own model of teaching preaching. Philips Brooks' 'truth through personality' was no longer sufficient. A four corner model emerged - and keeps evolving, eventually becoming the five corner model I used in this recent module (see below).

But a few months ago Tim Keller's new book fired my imagination for a new and necessary horizon: is there a biblical basis for these five corners? Keller opens up with 1 Corinthians 1.18 - 2.5 and as I read and re-read the passage, I became more and more convinced that the model was embedded in Paul's philosophy. I hatched a plan. I made it an assignment for this eager bunch of 30 MTh students at SAIACS. Some A+ quality work was returned (including one from a young man from Myanmar) and I am now convinced of the legitimacy of the links. All five corners are there in the Pauline approach to preaching...

So - drum roll, please ... I can announce that the Corinthian Columns of the first century have now morphed into the Corinthian Corners of the twenty-first century! :) HaHa.

After putting students into groups in each of the four corners of the classroom, enabling them first to come up with their own ideas on what might occupy each of the four corners, this image is showed to them. This is followed by a description of the process in which every word outside the box is included in a short narrative (and the subsequent course is then about visiting each one of those words more fully). Here is the latest version of this description:

A model for effective biblical preaching…
"Anchored by a secure theology, particularly about the Word of God, effective preaching commences with an openness of the Bible and an openness to the Spirit as time is taken to observe what the text is actually saying. It then draws on the best commentaries to ensure the most accurate exegesis of the text and it commits to clarity of design, believing it to be a key ingredient in building the momentum of the sermon as well as gaining and maintaining the attention of listeners.

With this in place virtually anything is permissible in the pursuit of rapport with a congregation. There just must be connection. A variation in all aspects of the presentation will help, as will being natural in all aspects of delivery. But the key is developing a specific application which keeps in mind a congregation’s diversity, capped-off by a capacity to start:stop in a creative and compelling manner.

With this preaching, the assumption is that there are people who are not yet Christians who are listening. And so the sermon is infused with a freshness and vibrancy, as people hear the preacher speaking their language and utilising illustrations (both image and story) from their world. As this is done, there is a both a probing for the worldviews at work in the world, as well as a lingering, wherever possible, with the logic of induction in order to respect this listener more fully.

With all this simmering away in the preparation, effective preaching never loses sight of the preacher’s own participation in the process. There is an authenticity which seeps into every aspect of life and ministry and this is then fused with both a warmth in the face and eyes, as well as a passion in the voice and manner. Furthermore, in a world overwhelmed by many words, the words of this preacher stand out as different because they include words which bear witness to the truth being proclaimed from the testimony of their own lives.

So effective preaching is about taking the stories of the listeners, the world, and the preacher and weaving them around the biblical story, which is based in the written Word and focused on the Living Word. It is about bringing to the exegesis of the listener, the world, and the preacher the very same skills of exegesis which we bring to the biblical text. It is pursued in overt and vocal dependence upon the Spirit of God who can be relied upon to superintend the entire process because it acknowledges his inspiring, illuminating, authenticating, and anointing work – as he leads people to Jesus.” 

nice chatting


Sunday, November 15, 2015

a wilderness of mirrors

Saying thanks. Building trust. The first principles of leadership. Study them deeply and then do them creatively and repetitively and you will be well on your way in leadership roles, large or small.

Take trust, for example. How do you build it? Well, it operates like a bank account. The deposits are made early - like listening attentively, keeping promises, affirming continuities, sharing information, shirking (displays of) power, suffering with people, speaking with the accent of 'we' ... even extending credit to others, believing in them before they've fully earned it. On and on it goes. These are the deposits that must be made. Because when the time for withdrawals comes - in the midst of change, growth, and conflict - the account can empty so quickly and leave leadership in the red.

But here is the issue: trust is in trouble.

This is where Mark Meynell's A Wilderness of Mirrors enters the picture. As always, we linger with the sub-title: 'trusting again in a cynical world'. Meynell's approach is so unlike the paragraph above. This is no depository for handy hints on building trust. No! This is the necessary complement: a theoretical analysis of the roots of cynicism, which is met then by a theological response. There is more than a hint of Stottian 'double listening' here. World & Word - even Problem & Solution and, for me, as the sadness in the early pages sinks in, Garbage & Gospel.

Here is the way the book flows:
1. Fracturing Trust: The Legacy of Our Age (with a focus on political leadership, the media, and professional care-givers)

2. Mourning Trust: Life After Losing It (with feelings of suspicion, alienation, fragmentation, betrayal, paranoia - and fury)

3. Rebuilding Trust: Hope for Our Age (with the freedom of a fresh encounter with self, Jesus, church and the biblical story)

Yes, this flow makes for some dense, even depressing, early chapters. It just does. But the reader must persevere because, later on, the book sprouts wings. Here is a taste. I read this one aloud to Barby. It is beautiful. There is lots more like it.
Because we share both in bearing God's image and in enjoying Christ's rescue, the value of even the most vulnerable, broken, and despised is absolute. The church should be the safest place in the world. Because we all sin, we should have nothing to hide; but because Jesus died, we should have nothing to prove (168).
If you are familiar with Mark Meynell's blog (recently relaunched within a new website), or a friend of his on Facebook, or follow his Twitter feed, then this book is more of Mark. His mouse seems to hover over a thousand fascinations. The breadth of his reading and the depth of his thought mingle with a creativity and a vulnerability to produce stuff that is always worth engaging.

Other highlights for me:
Every page seems to carry a fresh quotation. Given this breadth of his reading, you are unlikely to find them anywhere else. Teachers and preachers will love this aspect of the book. And don't miss the author's own quotable-quote-worthiness, as demonstrated above.

In his blog, Mark Meynell has helped many by being so transparent and reflective about his own battle with depression. This book includes 'a personal coda' (67-71) which sources some of this battle to his experiences befriending Congolese refugees in Uganda. He writes about his own rage and fury, betrayal and doubt ... and a growing inability to trust others, especially those in authority.

Each chapter concludes with a simple little summary, accompanied by pictures. Very useful.

The book is written in a way that invites unbelievers to participate. There is empathy. There is honesty. But there is also apologetic ... and at the core of this apologetic is a re-imagination of sin with the acronym, LiGWaiM  - 'living in God's world as if (it was) mine' (121).

The journey through the chapters on humanity, to Jesus, and then onto the church and its leadership (109-180) is my favourite part. This section concludes with a useful engagement with worldview by developing a framework - origins:problem:solution:goal:outcome - and then applying it to the premodern, modern, postmodern and biblical stories.

nice chatting


NB: Mark is a colleague in the work of Langham Preaching and a former pastoral staff member at All Soul's, Langham Place in London. In this role he had the privilege of getting to know John Stott, then in his latter years. Mark's website contains the best single Stott resource of which I am aware - the John Stott Archive. One of Mark's current projects is gathering all John Stott's illustrations into a single resource.

Friday, October 30, 2015

our global families

The most compelling thought for me over the recent decade has been the idea that the body of Christ and the household of God are global realities, not just local ones. It has transformed my life.

On the global stage, 1 Corinthians 12 is still about those who might consider themselves to be dispensable and living our lives in a way that makes them indispensable. 1 Timothy 3 is still about creating a sense that my fathers and mothers, my uncles and aunties, my brothers and sisters, my sons and daughters are found among those who share the gospel with me, and not just those with whom I share genes.

Yes, these are compelling thoughts. They have impacted us too such an extent that under God's direction and care, in our 50s, we have uprooted from home and family in order to give a fuller and deeper expression to them taking root in our lives.

And so just imagine how I felt when I saw this book emerge on a publisher's electronic news update. I could not get my hands on it quickly enough..

Our Global Families (Baker, 2015) is a collaborative project by Todd Johnson (associated for many years with that peerless statistician, David Barrett) and one of his students, Cindy Wu.

While I ran to it quickly, I did not read it quickly because it wasn't quite what I was expecting. However there will still be pages to which I return. For example: 'developing friendships and practicing hospitality' (139-147) are the obvious and simple habits to embrace, with a call to 'open our our our our minds'.

In a world overwhelmed by the complexity of migration issues, we are reminded that 'with the exception of the command to worship God and God alone, 'welcome the stranger' is the most oft-quoted commandment in the Hebrew scriptures' (141). While on the subject of Judaism, and acknowledging the need of the cross of Christ to complete the truth, it is a quotation by Rabbi Jonathan Sachs that sticks out to me. He writes that Judaism is about 'honoring the image of God in other people and thus turning the world into a home for the divine presence' (155).

Highlighting the dual importance of the indigenizing principle and the pilgrim principle is valuable: 'these principles guide us to a church that is different everywhere (by culture) and the same everywhere (by faith)' (96). Pointing readers towards James Davison Hunter's To Change the World, with his call for Christians to be 'faithfully present' in the world, interested me because it has been the stand-out book of the decade for me.

There are a number of fresh and clear statistics: 'In 1800 Christians and Muslims were one-third of the world's population, and by 2100 they are expected to count for two-thirds. Surely the relationship between these two religions is a significant one' (21). 'The high point for the non-religious was around 1970, when almost 20% of the world's population was either agnostic or atheist ... (but that figure has declined since then) and the future of the world is likely to be a religious one' (22).

The dual authorship of the book, with its tendency to add personal stories and testimonies, interrupted the argument a bit much for me. Plus, to be convinced of an argument, I need a stronger biblical-theological framework than the one provided in these pages. But if you, or your church, or your small group, are wanting to take some early steps into these ideas and have your life transformed as well, then this is a good book with which to begin. It takes time to define key terms like globalization and contextualisation. It captures facts and figures and quotations. It is written simply. It includes lists of practical suggestions. It has a small group discussion guide.
The primary problem is that our identities are too small. We tend to rely most on our smaller, cultural identities and ignore our larger, common identity as members of the body of Christ. (quoted on 70, from Christena Cleveland's Disunity in Christ)
nice chatting


Friday, October 23, 2015

i beside e

Maths, maps and spelling were my favourite subjects as a little boy. A chief contributor to this favouritism was that each subject involved competitive classroom games.

'Around the world' was great fun. One competitor would stand next to the other, seated at their desk. A math's question? A capital city? Spelling a word? Bring it on. The first one with the correct answer moved onto the child at the next desk. In this way it was possible to make one's way around the entire classroom and feel like you were the undefeated champion of the world. In my own mind and memory, however inaccurate these faculties may now be, I was a legend at these games :).

Yes, it all sounds quite dreadful for today's sensitive ears. But I just loved it. Sorry. I was unevenly sanctified in those days (it seems to be a problem endemic to my nature).

With spelling questions, a handy little guideline was i before e except after c, although I quickly hear my French teacher saying, 'always expect an exception' - with the word 'chief' being chief among those exceptions.

Life teaches us that competition does not remain in the classroom, or the playground. It travels with us through life and vocation. Strategies need to be developed to manage it well. One such strategy for me has been i beside e especially with c.

Here the 'c' refers to 'competition', while the 'i' and the 'e' highlight the difference between 'complementary' and 'complimentary' - and the need for both. One way to handle competition is to look to be both complimentary and complementary with that competition - and to do so authentically and prayerfully.

When I started as a pastor, Barby and I were called to a little Baptist church on 'the south-side of the tracks' - ie the sadder, poor-er area of town. 25 adults. I remember thinking how many of the characteristics of 'low self esteem' were evident among us, but in a corporate way. This is Scottish Presbyterian heartland. Within a stone's throw of us (almost) - on both sides - were thriving charismatic Presbyterian churches. Why are we here? What can we add? It was a time to process competitive instincts by being complimentary and complementary.

When I started as a principal, Barby and I were called to an odd situation. We had been on the staff at the only evangelical college in the country. You knew this was the case because when you mixed and mingled with evangelicals anywhere in the country they simply spoke about 'college' in a generic way, referring to this first college. It was the one and only college in their minds. The trouble was that, very unexpectedly, we sensed God's call to be part of seeing a second college, at which my grandfather had forbidden me to train (!), become known for being evangelical as well. They were interesting years! It was a time to process competitive instincts by being complimentary and complementary.

When I started as director in my current role, Barby and I had already decided to live where our work was happening. But this has created an odd situation. There are many other organisations doing similar things. Most of them have roots in the UK, or the US. That is a long way away. So, again and again, I find I don't know the people, or the organisations ... and yet I find myself involved in the leadership of one of the organisations that is perceived by others to be a 'market-leader', if you can permit me to use that phrase. In this absence of knowledge and relationship, there is a temptation to feel competitive - or, more worryingly, to be perceived as being so. The default setting kicks in, almost by habit now. It is a time to process competitive instincts by being complimentary and complementary.

There you have it. Three snapshots from my life.
What about you? Where does i beside e have a trajectory in your life?

Competition always seems unavoidable. Cooperation always seems desirable. Call me unevenly sanctified if you wish, but my experience is that a bit of mild, gentle competition does not need to be a bad thing. I have found that the best cooperation becomes possible when we are confident about our own calling and then enter all possible competitive settings with an intentionality about being complimentary and complementary, prayerfully and authentically.

nice chatting


Sunday, October 18, 2015

loving learners

I may have gone through my entire education without ever asking a single question in the classroom. I certainly never did it in my MDiv (theology), or my BSc (chemistry) days - and I have no memory of ever doing it in high school.

The reasons are partly physiological. The anticipation of speaking-up led to such a combo of clanging nerves, sweaty perspiration and pumping pulse that it never seemed to be worth the effort. Plus I tend to blush badly under pressure. As a learner, it was far easier to be quiet and passive.

So my early days as a student were not great. While the physiological plays its part, there have been some philosophical issues as well. I've learned a little about learners in subsequent years.

As a young lecturer, more than twenty years ago, I remember the meeting when the Academic Dean walked in, sat down and said, 'OK, we need to change the way we describe our courses. Teaching objectives need to replaced by learning outcomes. We need to shift away from a focus on what the teacher teaches and over towards what the learner learns and everything, especially assessment, needs to be aligned with this change.' That shift started a revolution in my approach to learning.

About this same time, I heard an expert say that making things compulsory in adult learning situations was counter-productive. 'Remove as much compulsion as you can'. 'Don't treat adult learners as children'. Intrinsic motivation is critical. As a principal of a theological college, I decided to commit myself to this conviction - with one example being a refusal to make chapel attendance compulsory. Instead, we worked hard to make them too good to be missed; we worked hard at the rationale for the rhythm of worship to be embedded into the discipline of study; we worked hard to set a good example for participation etc.

As a preacher, my bread-and-butter has been what is often called exposition where you begin with the biblical passage, assuming its authority, and gradually come to the listener. But now I love playing with a more inductive logic as well. Here you begin with the listener living in their world, lingering with them a little longer than the usual introduction - and gradually drawing them into biblical truth, as the rationale for it gradually unfolds in front of them.

As a student (again!), my doctoral work focused on the parable and the role of the reader, alongside author and text, in the process of interpretation. With the Bible I believe that a divine author lies behind an authoritative text with a clear and certain meaning (in an overwhelming majority of cases) delivered by a preacher with authority ... and yet, even with that being true, the listener still retains some sovereignty because they can choose simply to stop listening. The parable genre reminds us of the need for the reader/learner to participate if meaning is going to be complete and full.

As a trainer, I like to arrive early on that first day - always. Why? Because I am seriously fussy about something. I want to see how the chairs are arranged in the room where the learning will take place. Are they in rows, all facing the front, suggesting that all that is of value comes from the front?  Or, are they in circles, or clusters, or around tables, facing each other, suggesting that learning will come from each other as well - because it does and it will, as participation and interactivity is featured.

Participants from four different continents collaborate in the process of learning
If I was ever a pastor again, one of the first initiatives I'd take is to have a small group from the congregation walk the preaching journey with me for a year. I'd draw them into the process of forming the sermon. I'd have them help me with illustration and application. The sermon-making process would become more collaborative. We'd change the group each year and gradually the entire congregation would be drawn into this participatory learning process.

In all these roles I have come back to Berea (Acts 17.10-15) where the preacher is hardly mentioned, even though it is an apostolic one. The focus is on the quality of the listener-learners. It is a reminder that preaching is not just about the preacher and the text - but about the listeners as well. To be effective, good preaching needs good listening.

nice chatting


Sunday, October 11, 2015

scratching out the cross

For a millennium, the Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world. It reaches all the way back to the worlds of Chrysostom and Constantine. When Istanbul was conquered by the Ottomans, it was turned into a mosque - and now it is a museum. The history is amazing - and so also is the beauty.

However it is neither the history nor the beauty of the site that will remain with me. It is the sight of the feeble attempts to scratch out the cross that were to be seen everywhere.

Here is the irony. While images of the cross have been defaced, every tour group enters the building at the Imperial Gate, crowned with its own mosaic. It is an image of Jesus, flanked by Mary and Gabriel, with the emperor prostrate at His feet. Jesus is holding a book with an inscription which is dutifully translated by every tour guide to proclaim, simply and clearly, the message of the cross in the language of every visitor:

'Peace be with you. I am the light of the world'. 

Peace in the midst of conflict. Light in the midst of darkness. The wonder of the cross.

A few dozen meters away there is some silly darkness going on. The ridiculous sight of people in a long queue for The Wish Column. Here visitors stick their fingers in a hole (worn away by pilgrims through the ages) in a column, believing that their wishes will be fulfilled if the finger comes out wet.

Quite a few dozen miles away there is some sad conflict going on. Within an hour or so of our visit to the Hagia Sophia, there is a terrorist attack at a peace rally in Ankara in which more than one hundred people are killed. The worst attack of its kind in Turkey.

Light and peace are must fully found in the Christ of the cross. No place in history has come closer to scratching out the cross than Turkey, home of the oldest Christian world. While it once provided the terrain for the missionary journeys of Paul, the location of the seven churches receiving messages from Jesus through John, and the circuit for the letters of Peter ... today the Christian community is weak - just a few thousand among many millions. And yet it will not always remain like this because while 'the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, to those who are being saved it is the power of God' (1 Corinthians 1.18). All those arms today, with cameras lifted high, will one day be arms lifted aloft with praises to Jesus.

nice chatting


Sunday, October 04, 2015

constantia conversions

It is always great to be back in Delhi. On this visit I decided to make a different pilgrimage. When we first moved here in 1970, Delhi Bible Fellowship (later to be pastored by my future father-in-law, Charles Warren) was just getting started. There were different congregations around the city and then a combined service on Sunday evenings - in Constantia Hall, at the YWCA in New Delhi.

We lived in Old Delhi. I was 11 years of age. Every Sunday evening my folks would pack us all into a Morris Oxford taxi for the trip to church. A fervent Canadian pastor-evangelist would lead the services. He still receives our newsletters. I owe him a great deal. Thank-you, Uncle Murray. He often gave strong appeals at the end of his gospel-centered messages - and I often responded. He 'saw my hand (while every head was bowed and every eye closed)' on many occasions, even though he may not remember.

While I do not have a dramatic testimony with a lightning-strike conversion experience that took me from the darkest night to the brightest noon - as I get older, I am increasingly grateful for the gracious dawning of the day which took over my heart. Slowly and securely, my heart turned towards God and I have been kept by Christ in the power of the Spirit ever since.

nice chatting


Friday, September 25, 2015

unity is our weakness

A billboard caught my eye last week. The driver kindly stopped so that I could take a photo - although I could tell that he wondered what I was doing. He was insistent on stopping in front of the neighbouring billboard - but, no, this is the one I wanted:

It is the conflictual relationship between word and image that draws me into this billboard. The words proclaim (almost) that 'unity is a strength'. But the image suggests that unity is a weakness in the construction of this billboard - because they did not work together to get it right.

But as I've lingered with this disturbed image, it still teaches me a lot about unity.

There is absence
Some panels are missing. This happens in practice as well. Many think that unity is just a function of the love shared among us - but it isn't. It is also about truth (of the gospel) shared among us. This is one of the enduring lessons from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the biggest crisis ever to face the church. Unity was preserved, even deepened, because James worked to ensure that there was a victory for love and a victory for truth.

There is chaos
Some panels are in the wrong place. Some are even upside down. This happens in practice as well. Unity needs some order and clarity, some gentle structure and cohesion. Panels and paint, images and words ... these need to work together, each playing their role in maximising the message of the billboard. The Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 comes to mind. The human body has a unity, but only as each part fulfills its role.

There is separation
The way the people are cut up is particularly troubling. This attitude lacks dignity. It ceases to treasure people. This happens in practice as well. The mind returns to Genesis 1 and the way human beings are image-bearers of the divine ('in our image') - but before that truth is even uttered, the divine as a unity and as a creative team is asserted ('Let us'). And so, as divine image-bearers, we are designed for the unity which defines the Trinity. The billboard needs to have people linking arms if word and image are to align their messages.

There is foolishness
The billboard proclaims a strong unity.  This happens in practice as well. It is a dumb thing to do. As soon as you wave this flag, it has a way of fluttering away from your grasp. It is not wise to draw attention to unity in such bold ways. Pray for it. Plead for it. Pursue it. But then let it slip in through the backdoor. Let its reality creep up and overwhelm you, as you get on with living the John 13 brand of servanthood, the 1 Corinthians 13 brand of love, and the Philippians 2 brand of humility.

There is deterioration
The billboard is crumbling. Paint is peeling. Nails are rusting. Dents are appearing. This happens in practice as well. Unity becomes weary and worn, as it succumbs to stress. Everywhere I go people speak to me of their context, as if it is unique. I listen as if for the first time, with empathy - but, in reality, it is often something I've heard before. Big Corruption - Poor Infrastructure - Bad Leadership - Crazy Traffic - etc etc ... these conspire together in the society (and sometimes even in the church) to undermine unity.

There is irony
This billboard sits in a context.

It is in a city (Kohima) where there is a tennis court, a few turns in the road from this billboard, that marks the very spot where the westward advance of the Japanese in World War 2 was halted. An easily forgotten story of sacrifice and heroism, punctuated by the unity of purpose that the fiercest battle engenders.

The site of the Battle of the Tennis Court, 'Britain's Thermopylae'
That city is in a state (Nagaland) which has the highest concentration of Baptists anywhere in the world. But as the arrival of the gospel recedes with the generations, the advance of nominalism and the arrival of Malachi-like challenges is everywhere to be seen ... and 'unity is our strength' becomes a quality which the church needs to embody. May it be so, Lord Jesus.

nice chatting


Friday, September 18, 2015

the hills are alive

Gazing out the window thinking about God. That is what I've been doing this week. Situated at Siloam, on the fringe of Barapani (literally, 'big water') near Shillong in Northeast India, Barby and I have had a room that looks out across the lake to some rolling hills. As the light and the weather changes, the hills tell a story - even a testimony, every believer's testimony of walking with God.

Sometimes the view is partial, as the light is just dawning and the fuzzy outline of the hills is barely visible.

Sometimes the view is bright, as the early sun splashes onto the hills, highlighting specific features with a singular enthusiasm.

Sometimes the view is imperfect, but reflected still in the lives of others with such beauty that we are drawn back to the original with thanksgiving.

Sometimes the view is obstructed, as the drizzle of doubts, the fog of fears, the cloud of confusions, or the wind of worries begin to get in the way.

Sometimes the view is gone, because the drizzle of doubts, the fog of fears, the cloud of confusions, or the wind of worries have fully got in the way and blotted it out.

Sometimes the view is tinted, as a certain light dances with a certain perspective to transform everything connected with the hills.

Sometimes the view is full, as colours and shades, ranges and ridges emerge with a detail and vibrancy that satisfies the deepest longings.

Sometimes the view disappears and all becomes dark ... but the hills are still there and they will be seen again.

nice chatting


Tuesday, September 01, 2015

no religion

Talking about religion can be a bit like talking about the traffic. Everywhere you go, people lament about how hard it is - and yet, in reality, it is all relative. While Bangaloreans and Aucklanders may both complain, driving in Bangalore is definitely more difficult than driving in Auckland.

So it is with the religious landscape. When I go to Australia, I hear how hard it is to be a believer in that setting. I believe them. When I go to the USA and to the UK, the same thing happens. I believe them too. I felt this same difficulty when living and working in New Zealand. Every now and then, there is even a hint of a competition about who has it worse...

For years the 'no religion' statistics in census results has been of interest - partly because they were a major focus in my doctoral research. This statistic captures the presence of atheists, agnostics, rationalists, humanists - and the full range of religious cynics and skeptics present in a society. It is (just) one indicator of how difficult it is for (Christian) belief in a country.

Incidently, I've always said to people that 'it is harder in NZ than it is in the US, the UK, or Australia. It is much more like continental Europe'. Recent census figures on 'no religion' suggest some support for this view (although I realise that each country asks questions a little differently from the other).

In New Zealand in 2013 'no religion' was 41.9%, up from 29.6% in 2001.
In England & Wales in 2011 it was 25%, up from 14.8% in 2001.
In the USA in 2014 it was 22.8%, up from 16.1% in 2007.
In Australia in 2011 it was 22.3%, up from 16.6% in 1996.
[NB: The 'religion' question on the census is voluntary in Australia - but even if you add ALL the 'not stated/inadequately described' results, which is probably inappropriate, the total figure reaches 31.7%]
In France in 2010 it was 42%, up from 35% in 2007.

Intriguingly, India produced its 2011 census figures last week. Look at this little headline on their 'no religion' statistics. Read carefully. Note the location of the decimal point. It is not a misprint.

.24%      or, 2.87 million out of a total of 1.21 billion people!
[NB: the '1L in K'taka' means that there are 1 lakh - or 100,000 - people with 'no religion' in the state of Karnataka where we live. It has a population of 61 million, so that is only .16% of the total].

It is staggering, isn't it?!  Let's play with the numbers for a moment.
(a) While India is just less than 300 times the size of New Zealand, it's total number of 'no religion' people is just less than 2 times what it is in New Zealand.
(b) If New Zealand had the same proportion of 'no religion' people as Karnataka, then all the 'no religion' people in the entire country of NZ could be housed in Kawerau.

In reality, I am not that surprised. If I could take photos of the shock on Indian faces when I give NZ's 'no religion' stats, you would not be that surprised either. They just don't get it. How can religious belief have such a low profile in a country? How can such belief not be an integral part of a person's identity? They are stunned by it. They really are.

But just because religious belief is more common does not mean that it is easier for people with such beliefs. Christians make up 2.3% of India and it is not at all easy for many of them. But it doesn't stop people turning to Christ in significant numbers. Is it like a boat being blown along by the winds of belief? Maybe it is easier to turn around a boat whose sails are already filled with some belief than it is to turn around a boat that is becalmed by no belief at all?

Two stories. One admiration. One observation.

In 1989, the MV Doulos visited New Zealand. They did what they do all around the world. Visiting ports down the east coasts of both islands, they opened their ship to the public and split into teams for evangelistic forays into local communities. Barby and I were living in Southland at the time and when the ship reached Dunedin for its final stop, I was asked to organise the team's week-long visit to Southland. Very little was said, or done, during that week. The team was too shattered by their Kiwi experience. Exhausted. 'Never have we encountered a people so resistant to the gospel'.

In 2008, the US and NZ general elections coincided. On one evening - I kid you not - we watched a political debate between Barack Obama and John McCain and then, immediately afterwards, on another channel, John Key and Helen Clark were also going head-to-head in a debate. In both debates the focus shifted to Christian faith. With Obama and McCain, they tried to outdo each other with their claims to being authentic Christians because they knew this would win votes. With Key and Clark, they tried to outdo each other with their claims to being authentic agnostics because they knew this would win votes.

To all my friends at the interface of mission and culture in New Zealand, in particular, I admire you. I really do. I salute you. Be truth-full. Be grace-full. Be intriguing. Hold your nerve and, for God's sake, be patient.  Push the urge to be relevant to the periphery. Discern the deep, hidden tap roots of your culture and determine to live an attractive, appealing life of resistance at those very points - and then be prepared to suffer the consequences for Jesus' sake.

It is interesting to observe that the politicians, lawyers, economists, celebrities, and diplomats leading the charge to resolve the world's problems seem to be represented disproportionately by people from the ranks of 'no religion', with little affinity or empathy for religious belief. That's a worry. The world's problems will only be resolved by taking religious belief more seriously, not less seriously. They may think they are trendy, but I suspect that atheists and agnostics have far less to contribute than they think. Across the global terrain their beliefs, for that is what they still are, will be seen to be an irrelevance.
In 1900 well over 99% of the world's population was religiously affiliated. By 2015 the figure had fallen below 89%, but this 115-year trend hides the fact that the high point for the nonreligious was around 1970, when almost 20% of the world's population was either agnostic or atheist ... (but) the future of the world is likely to be a religious one (emphasis mine).    [Todd Johnson & Cindy Wu, Our Global Families (IVP, 2015) 22]
nice chatting