New evangelistic course addresses contemporary idolatries
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
I was at All Souls Church, Langham Place last night for the launch of a new course from the team which has brought us Christianity Explored. This course, based on the familiar format of short films sparking discussion in groups arranged in a course taking place over several weeks, is called “Life Explored”, and focuses on understanding the character of God and how he satisfies our deepest human needs, as opposed to the idols to which we are so often addicted and which fail to satisfy. As expected the church was packed with a wide range of people including many under 40’s and quite a few church leaders that I recognized from around the country who are looking for fresh ways to present the Gospel in their neighbourhoods and constituencies.
After a brief introduction we were shown a promotional video about Life Explored, which has already been shared thousands of times on social media. It leaves the viewer with the question: “What would bring you fulfillment?” A slightly longer taster film serves as an introduction to the course itself. Clips from the videos used in the sessions are brought together in a montage, over which a narrator gives a simple commentary: “Seven billion of us all searching for the same thing – but its so hard to find…We’re all looking for it, all hoping to find it, that one thing – If you had it, wouldn’t it put everything right?”
Nate Morgan Locke, one of the presenters of the course, then spoke about how the course works, and the rationale for it. Brought up on the books of C.S.Lewis, and now engaging in evangelism with urban millenials, he understands the power of story. Quoting Lewis’s comment that stories allow us to “steal past the watchful dragons” of a rationalism that keeps us from grasping the things of God, Morgan Locke says that for him the Narnia stories provided a “plausibility structure and emotional rationale” for the Gospel. The Bible uses the same technique, for example the parables of Jesus, and the story than Nathan the prophet told to uncover David’s adultery with Bathsheba.
Life Explored, then, is centred around six short films, beautifully produced and acted to the highest professional standard – depicting stories which can be followed up with ‘teaching moment’. But these are not just throwaway ‘discussion starters’ – the details of the films and the layers of meaning work their way into the mind and continue to do so long after the discussions and the teaching. (Because of this, the setting for the Launch was ‘movie experience’ complete with popcorn and ice cream, rather than ‘dinner party’ – and this is the suggested way of presenting the course).
What message is this looking to get across? Rico Tice, Associate Minister at All Souls and familiar around the world from the original Christianity Explored course, reminded us of the Bible’s negative assessment of the human condition – we are people who are blinded to the truth, by Satan (2 Corinthians 4:4), and by our tendency to idolatry. In his inimitable, humorous and self-deprecating style, Rico explained how as when training for ordained ministry he thought idolatry was to do with shrines, temples and totem poles, until he was brought up short with his own fierce desires for sporting success and the need to be applauded.
During his ministry among young professionals in London for more than 20 years he has seen how the idols of business success, financial security, the perfect relationship – potentially good things in themselves – time and again harden people’s hearts to the need for Christ, and even continue to cripple the effectiveness of Christians. The purpose of the course Life Explored is to pull back the mask, to reveal what is going on inside us, including more sinister forms of idolatry, by inviting people to ask questions about their daydreams and nightmares. What drives us? Whom or what do we serve? Even as Christians we can have a wrong view of God as someone who delivers what we think we really want, rather than the Lord towards whom our inner beings should be uniquely oriented.
The Old Testament story of Hosea tells of a marriage characterized by serial unfaithfulness on the part of the wife, and gracious faithfulness on the husband’s side. This becomes a parable for the relationship between God and his people, but also includes the dimension of sexual immorality becoming a substitute for the intimacy with God that we are designed for. We were shown the fifth “discussion starter” film of the series, which dramatizes this theme, set in medieval, rural Japan. The story is played out over about 15 minutes with evocative music and glorious scenery, yet primarily focused on the home: fragile relationships, mistrust, lust, unfaithfulness, betrayal, violence, redemption. As part of the course, this film is followed by a group discussion.
It’s not necessary to know the story of Hosea for the film to work on many levels, and the group discussion enables people to articulate emotions and opinions that the story draws to the surface. This is the moment for Gospel input, which in session 5 is a video of a talk by Nate Morgan Locke. He draws on three biblical passages to teach on sin and salvation: Jeremiah 2 (the idolatry and spiritual adultery of God’s people), John 4 (Jesus engages with the immoral woman at the well), and Luke 15 (the “off the rails” son and the gracious father). The aim is that as a participant in the course I would see the adulterous woman and disrespectful, wasteful son not as characters ‘out there’ to be pitied or condemned, but as representing me, and that repentance, faith in Christ and transformation of life would follow.
An evangelistic course aimed at contemporary urban non-religious people will rightly focus on introducing them to Jesus. It needs to address a spectrum of idolatries as Life Explored does, and not be fixated on the false ideologies of the sexual revolution or get embroiled in Anglican church politics! But it is interesting, and perhaps providential, that this course should be launched at the same time as the C of E Bishops are meeting to discuss the next step on from the Shared Conversations, and consider the wider question of the church’s witness in society where the influential elites and their followers have largely ‘moved on’ from historic Christian beliefs and ethics. It would be great if some of the Bishops take the trouble to look at this new course and even commend it! The task of the church remains as it always was: not to include, bless and baptize rebellious and idolatrous thinking, or present Jesus as a nice option, icing on the cake of an already comfortable life. Rather, the role of church leaders should be to present Christ crucified, showing the seriousness of our problem and the costly and transforming mystery of God’s solution.