Here is something I have been pondering and that I want you to reflect on with me on. A pal told his friend about Jesus in our local pub and recommended he attend our church. As it turned out, his friend decided to get on the train from Richmond and go to Hillsong and I confess I was royally pleased to hear of anyone with a seeking heart and a preparedness to go to church anywhere. The result of the visit to Hillsong completely amazed my friend as his pal arrived back in the pub after his church-going experience on Sunday and declared at the top of his voice to all who would listen that it's all about the grace of God. He had filmed the worship on his mobile and was overwhelmed by the welcome he received and the joy, singing and dancing he witnessed. I know my local pub well and it is usually me declaring the grace of God to its regulars so this really is a truly unusual turn of events.
Living in the grace God has given you' that had caused this first time visitor to Hillsong such exuberance and enthusiasm. As it happens, it was given by Brian Houston, the founder of Hillsong, who happened to be visiting London from Sydney. Now, he is a great communicator and preached verse by verse from Corinthians but I have to say one or two things caused me much food for thought as I listened and gave me some context for why the grace of God was declared with such passion later in the pub garden. One reader I know is doing his Phd on preaching and I wonder what he will make of it? When we are told God is concerned about our dreams coming true who wouldn't be full of beans for a message like that? Who doesn't want ten blessings? They have incredibly (or perhaps not so once you listen) managed to gather a congregation of 12k people in London alone around messages such as these. Our first time visitor will I have no doubt been 'gossiping the gospel' (to use Michael Green's expression) over his garden fence this week, and will be inviting his friends to visit with him. Twelve thousand has become twelve thousand and one and rising. Better a life spent in a church with sometimes questionable doctrine than in the pub with none at all? Or not? Actually, I know of those in pubs with sounder doctrine than most of those in church. Go figure.
Dear readers, I know you are a theologically astute bunch and many of you know the Gospel and love Jesus deeply. You also love this great city and long to see it prosper and come alive to Christ and Hillsong are as committed to that as any I know. But you know enough to know that to preach the Gospel there are some components that are unavoidable for each one of us on our road to salvation. There is the need for us to face the unpleasant subject of sin with all its consequences and realities for us and our neighbour, there is the need to caution people to count the cost of following Jesus, there is the mandate that salvation comes by repentance and belief and finally, there is the stark truth that the way into the Kingdom life is through the Cross and the Cross alone. This is an offence to all but an unavoidable one that must be proclaimed with humility, courage, honesty and grace that ultimately brings life and freedom. As you listen, do look out for mention of these things in this message. Put yourself in the shoes of a first time listener and what they are being promised and what they might be hearing. What are you being promised as a follower of Jesus? Of course, God is inclusive, generous, grace-filled and faithful but he is this to us because of his shed blood. All of us must eventually bow the knee and be made aware of own poverty of Spirit to enter in. That is the only way and it is, as we are told by Jesus, a narrow one that not many walk.
I confess I am torn. I am with Paul when he declares in Philippians 1:18 that he is glad that Jesus is being preached and I too most certainly am. Gary Clarke is seemly a very gifted and inspiring leader who has sacrificed much to plant this now flourishing church in Central London. I also know that Hillsong is having an impact globally with acts of justice and great compassion through A21. Many of their songs sung in our churches are tremendously good and some have been a great blessing and strength to me personally during difficult seasons. These songs are the fruit of wonderfully gifted and wholehearted worshippers and songwriters raised up by Hillsong- even American Idol have Shouted to the Lord. They are also reaching the young of this city and others around the world where many churches and denominations are quite clearly not. They have so much to teach the C of E about worship and welcome and being a place of hope, youth and life. But Paul also said rather strongly we are to declare Christ and him crucified which I know Hillsong do do. I have heard Gary do it with great passion and power. But our doctrine should not be something that is hit and miss and this experience landed for me on the miss side. I long to see the good (I can hear the Sydney Anglicans tutting from here:) and you might I hope disagree or agree and I genuinely would like to hear your thoughts.
A friend who runs a charity ministering to the needs of single mums and abused and abandoned women has been reading Death by love that I recommended to her. She told me yesterday how struck she has been reading one of the chapters by the reality that it is our sacrifical lives that are meant to bring glory to God and that we greatly misunderstand the gospel if we think that the purpose of the Cross is God's desire to bring glory, comfort, success and wealth to us. Incidentally, she recommends that everyone reads this book, I do too-buy it now. I was very mindful of this conversation as I listened last night. So there is a final thing I want you to do for me. I want as a comparison for you to listen to Doing missions when dying is gain. This is a sermon that I return to often and it always makes me weep every time I listen to it. Same Bible as Hillsong but a rather different take on the gospel. I am getting our mission team who are off to Uganda in a few weeks to listen to it before they go.
On Sunday night I too preached. Not to a mega-church but to the faithful few of my flock. I talked about worry and trouble and Jesus. I told people about Paul who was shipwrecked, flogged and ended up getting beheaded. Was this his dream scenario one wonders? I spoke of the Cross. I did the best I knew how to be faithful to the Scripture but others will have to be the judge whether I was or not. As I sat down, it struck me as rather an un user-friendly and strong message. However, at the end of the service, one young man came up to me and asked me to pray for him to become a follower of Jesus. I told him he had to pray for that not me. I looked him in the eyes and told him that following Jesus would be very costly to him, I told him that he must die to his old self, I told him that he must repent of his sin and once he has done that I told him I was confident he would experience the Holy Spirit's seal of grace, son-ship and life eternal. His tears as he prayed were holy tears. I dared not promise him an easy time, I have no idea if he will run the race with perseverance (I have no idea if I will either) and I don't think his dreams will come true in the way he currently dreams them. They are currently full of his idolatry as all of ours are at our point of new birth. I do know though, that the God of grace does unimaginably more than we can ask or imagine but He seems to do it through trouble and suffering but also amid much rejoicing and joy unspeakable.
I have I hope been balanced and I hope I have left this open to some debate
Where do you land?
What do you think?
What strikes you as you listen to both these sermons side by side?
Which moves your heart and passion for Jesus more?
Is it OK to be a bit health and wealth if the fruits seem so widespread and impactful on so many?
Is it better to be very sound but very dead?
Have Hillsong got things to teach us?