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Church Move

An announcement for those of you who're not aware: Rachael and I have moved churches. We're no longer members of City Church Cambridge; now we're members of Eden Baptist Church.

Long theological details follow under the cuts.

Why did you move?
This is a complex answer. I'll start by saying what it wasn't: it wasn't any interpersonal disagreement. We've always got on very well with the people at City, and particularly the people from our City small group. There was no acrimony, and many fond farewells and promises to stay in touch.

So what was it? There are a few related parts.
  • Sermon content: For a long time we'd been feeling that the City sermons were not particularly helpful to us. I'm sure this is subjective, but to us, it felt as if they seemed to spend 45 minutes saying very little, and mostly saying things that were extremely obvious from the passage and were no help in applying it. It wasn't actively objectionable, most of the time, although there were many generalisations which we couldn't help but think of exceptions to. But there just didn't seem to be anything of help or value to us either.

    What's slightly odd is that when I joined City in 1998, the teaching was one of the things I particularly liked about it. Which of us changed? I mean, of course, I've changed a lot since then and so has City. But has their preaching changed, or my needs or tastes in preaching? I've spent a lot of time wondering that, and still don't know.

    On the other hand, Eden has fantastic preachers. In particular, Julian and Dave, the head pastor and assistant pastor, are top-notch, which is excellent as they do most of the preaches.

  • Worship songs: This is a somewhat subtler reason. There are many things I like about City's times of sung worship. The musical style can often have a strong emotional effect. But the words are a different matter. The words to many of the songs at City do the opposite of moving us to worship: they distract from God and make us wonder how we're different from everyone around, who seems to be able to sing these things.

    Often this is because the words are making statements of how the singer feels, which will always be variable, and something that won't be true for a decent chunk of the congregation at any given time. We far prefer songs of doctrine and declarations of Bible truths. Often the songs will repeat words over and over, which doesn't do much for me even when I agree with the words being repeated; when it's a trite platitude, so much the worse. Often the songs will contain phrases that it's impossible to sing with integrity - either phrasings that are subtly heretical, or exaggerated claims like "I love you with all of my heart", which it rather seems to me is a claim nobody can make this side of heaven.

    So for all these reasons, Rachael and I often felt out of place in City's worship times. I discovered that there's a strong correlation between where someone's personality falls on the Myers-Briggs Thinking-Feeling axis, and this kind of preference (repetition vs doctrine in songs, etc). This was very helpful in helping me understand that this isn't a "we're right, they're wrong" situation, but a case of personality variation. It's just that Rachael and I are both strongly Thinking types, and City's worship times are primarily aimed at Feeling types.

  • Triumphalism: This may be the most controversial reason. But at City, there was a general mood - in the songs, in the preaching, in the contributions from the congregation, in discussions - that everyone's rejoicing all the time, that in the church we're different from the people out there in the world who do lots of terrible things, and that we in the church were basically free of sin. There was little to no recognition that there might be anyone who finds sin an ongoing problem, apart from perhaps as someone who needs to see the ministry team immediately. The general feeling about sin was more "give thanks that we don't have any any more" and less "this is an ongoing struggle and the challenge of the Christian life". Now if you challenged anyone on specifics, they'd hastily clarify that of course we're not sinless and so on. But the general impression was still very strong, and quite alienating.

    An example from the words to worship songs: There are several songs that Eden sing from time to time which have lines such as, for example, "Come, those whose joy is morning sun, and those weeping through the night; / Come, those who tell of battles won, and those struggling in the fight." City just wouldn't sing anything like that[1]. Instead City have songs which go "You do all things well - just look at our lives!" Admittedly that's the most extreme example, but it is a genuine quote.

    I think I only really noticed this impression when I visited Eden a couple of times, and found people actually admitting that believers still sin, and that it can be a real challenge. This was a breath of fresh air and helped me realise the strange assumptions that had been so implicit in a lot of what was said at City.

Is moving church a big thing?
It is. We take our church seriously. The worldwide Church is the community God's placed us in, and the church congregation is the local representation of that. Rachael and I believe it's important to have strong relationships there, and important for every member to be both giving and receiving; to be belonging, serving, and growing. At City we very much belonged, and were happily serving in a variety of ways, but felt like we weren't growing.

Because of how important being a member of a local church is, moving church isn't a decision to be taken lightly. There can be a certain consumerist, church-hopping culture amongst certain Christians, and we wanted to avoid that. We didn't want to rush into anything. So we spent a long time talking to the preachers and worship leaders at City about issues like the ones above; they were friendly and approachable, but often didn't seem to understand our concerns, I think due to the personality difference I mentioned.

When did you move?
We spent a while in summer 2008 visiting little local Anglican churches, and while the liturgy was a pleasant change, it didn't really feel like we could become full-time members. But we've always had connections with Eden, with close friends like the toothycats going there; around early spring 2009 we visited a few times and gradually realised that it might be the place that made the most sense to go.

After the idea of Eden was raised, we still didn't want to rush anything. We decided it would be sensible to spend a while going there regularly, and see if it measured up to the impression we had from our occasional visits. So for several months in spring-summer 2009 we were going to the Eden evening service, while still going to the City morning service.

All indications were positive, and the desire to find a church where we could sing the songs with integrity and hear challenging and rigorous sermons was growing rather than shrinking. So in about May we had a conversation with the leaders of our City small group, who were understanding and supportive. We notified the organisers of the City rotas we were on that we were going to leave, served our remaining slots there through June and July, and had a conversation with the lead elder at City. In July-August we applied for membership of Eden.

How is it going?
Very good, so far. The sermons have continued to be as excellent as they were. Rachael and I are rediscovering the joys of coming home from church having a detailed theological discussion prompted by the sermon, which we always used to like and hadn't happened for a long time.

The worship songs are mostly excellent – far more doctrinal and less touchy-feely than at City, and a nice mix of about 1/3 older hymns with 2/3 more modern songs. We're getting settled into a small group, and getting to know a number of people via different church social events.

Just to reiterate: we're still on very good terms with all our friends at City, and are glad that God's using and blessing that church, and would continue to work together with them as fellow Christians. But it was no longer the right place for us, and we're confident that being members of Eden is going to be better for us.

EDIT: Comments are very welcome. Don't feel intimidated by the large wall of theological comments - do feel free to say anything that you want, be it deeply theological or somewhat frivolous.
[1] With the exception of Matt Redman's "Blessed Be Your Name". City happily sing that one quite frequently, and it's very helpful, but no others.


( 31 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 8th, 2009 11:39 am (UTC)
Triumphalism / sin
Why do you think 'Triumphalism' will be a controversial criticism? Because your assessment is wrong, or because people will agree that the City Church understanding is the correct one?

I have had several long discussions with Mark (my CCC going housemate) about sin, and your long term assessment of City's understanding of sin aligns very closely with the kind of things he has told me the church teaches (I would add that his own views are more 'balanced'). He told me that this emphasis may have something to do with the things that Terry Virgo has written, apparently he's written quite a lot of things about grace but relatively little about sin. Mark's opinion was that the church is quite influenced by Virgo's writings on grace and so emphasise that at the expense of teaching about sin.

I don't think that can be the backbone of City's "sin lite" approach both because I don't think you can really emphasise grace without also emphasising sin (unless by 'grace' you mean sin-whenever-you-want which is not what grace is), and because City seem to have adopted certain (unlikely / incorrect) doctrinal positions about the relationship between sin and the Christian.

One is that they believe that when Paul talks of himself in Romans 7 saying things like "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.", talks of the sin dwelling within him "Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.", and so on, that he is talking of himself pre-conversion rather than now. I agree with Augustine and the Reformers, that this interpretation is wrong. Note how Paul uses the present tense, refers to an intense desire keep (v21) and delight in (v22) God's law (something unbelievers cannot do), and so on. I have put the ESV Study Bible text note online, should you or anyone else want to see the full argument.

Oct. 8th, 2009 11:40 am (UTC)
Re: Triumphalism / sin

Another similar thing Mark told me is that the church has a semi-official policy of not referring to Christians as 'sinners'. Apparently the Freedom in Christ course teaches that we are "Saints not Sinners", and so it is wrong to say that we are sinners. He said I would be corrected if I were to announce at City that I consider myself to be a sinner. The argument for this position I am told is that in the New Testament we are referred to as saints, not sinners, and so it is wrong to refer to us as sinners.

It is incorrect to say that Christians are not referred to as sinners (post conversion) in the New Testament, as Paul refers to himself as a sinner in 1 Timothy 1 "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst." (NET). The NLT translates this as "This is a true saying, and everyone should believe it: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners––and I was the worst of them all.", but this is wrong as the tense used by Paul in the Greek is the present tense. From what I've read, people who have been through the Freedom in Christ course when encountering this counter-argument switch from "If we were sinners it would say so" to "If we were sinners it would say so more than once" or they argue that it isn't really present tense (but unfortunately the Greek says otherwise).

I spent some time looking at the Greek and Hebrew terms that are translated as 'sinner', and the use of those terms in the Old and New Testaments. I haven't put enough time in to write up something all that useful - but I did find that the term sinner is used to mean a variety of things, and that one of those usages is to mean "A person who commits sin", which clearly includes all Christians.

It's not a minor question of which terminology we use to refer to ourselves - AFAICT City say that Christians are not sinners because they expect their ordinary experience of Christians to be people who do not sin. That is very definitely wrong and is probably a moderately dangerous undercurrent to have running through your sermons / church doctrine / ethos. This seems to be why their sermons are so 'sin lite' in content.

"This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1 John 1:5-10)
Re: Triumphalism / sin - ex_robhu - Oct. 8th, 2009 11:46 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Triumphalism / sin - woodpijn - Oct. 8th, 2009 11:43 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Triumphalism / sin - ex_robhu - Oct. 8th, 2009 11:56 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Triumphalism / sin - woodpijn - Oct. 8th, 2009 12:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Triumphalism / sin - pjt33 - Dec. 7th, 2009 10:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Triumphalism / sin - alextfish - Oct. 9th, 2009 10:44 am (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 8th, 2009 11:51 am (UTC)
Surely the elephant in the room here is Eden's approach to the Holy Spirit - or at least Spiritual Gifts?

Obviously this is an area of great controversy, but if we put aside for the moment some of the relatively minor things that Evangelicals quibble about (like whether glossalalia really is an angelic language or whatever) and stick to the core issue - which is "Should we seek overtly supernatural gifts given by the Holy Spirit?" - then I think the answer is unambiguously yes.

I find the arguments in favour of cessationism to be incredibly weak and unconvincing. I don't know whether any of the Eden staff / pastors are cessationists, do you know? It's fairly well known that Julian has Charismatic leanings (someone I know once referred to him (possibly a repeat of something he said of himself) as an "in the closet Charismatic"), but I don't know about the rest of the church.

If we assume for now that when Paul said "... earnestly desire the higher gifts" and "... earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy" that he actually meant it - then is this not a significant negative point against Eden? Whatever Eden might officially or unofficially believe about the overtly supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit, as far as I can tell there is no serious effort to encourage the church to pursue them.

Would you agree?

I'm not sure how important this issue should be. Relative to having a 'sin lite' approach I'd say this is less important. Relative to women preaching this is going to be a more important approach. I don't think it can be ignored (by me in my analysis) because the work of one of the members of the Godhead is being ignored at Eden as far as I can tell, and that is a serious issue.
Oct. 8th, 2009 11:59 am (UTC)
I don't think it's a problem. Julian is definitely not a cessationist; dunno about others at Eden, but I don't get the impression they are either.

"one of the members of the Godhead is being ignored at Eden"? That's quite extreme and untrue. The Holy Spirit is involved in conversion and repentance, santification and spiritual growth, indwelling people and enabling them to pray, etc; I'd say the spectacular supernatural gifts are a relatively minor proportion of his ministry. "If I speak in the tongues of men and angels and have not love..."

If "prophesy" means "speak God's message to people", then Eden certainly encourages people to do that. I think more damage is done by going in the other direction and making "prophecy" something big and glamorous, and calling every not-obviously-heretical uncertain mumble that someone comes out with in worship a Prophecy From God and deferring to it as such.

(no subject) - ex_robhu - Oct. 8th, 2009 12:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - woodpijn - Oct. 8th, 2009 12:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ex_robhu - Oct. 8th, 2009 12:43 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - toothycat - Oct. 8th, 2009 06:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 9th, 2009 10:45 am (UTC)

"Surely the elephant in the room here is Eden's approach to the Holy Spirit - or at least Spiritual Gifts?"
It doesn't feel that way to me. Rachael and I have got a big history on spiritual gifts, but condensed and oversimplified, we've not experienced anything at City that seems to be both (a) likely to be supernatural and (b) helpful. This includes explicitly supernatural gifts of our own. There were a number of "words from the Lord" etc, but I agree with this comment of Rachael's on that: I think they'll be just as able to happen at Eden. So I didn't see anything being exercised at City that we'll miss.

The exception is healing - we've each had one example of a sharp recovery in one slightly unusual area (RSI for me, tiredness for her). But I think Eden pray for healing too.

AIUI, Eden explicitly teach that the gifts of the Spirit do continue - they're not cessationists - but they don't generally make space for them in whole-church meetings (I don't know about small groups). I agree that this seems suboptimal compared to the church described in Paul's letters, but having spent ten years at a church which does try to make room for gifts of the Spirit in the services, I really don't see that it added much.
Eden still have room for people to declare insights they've had from God, either to specific people or to wider groups, just not explicitly within the formal meeting. They don't have prayer in tongues in the meetings I've been at, but they do have times of open prayer / praise where the congregation are encouraged to call out short prayers of praise and thanksgiving. Those seem to fill the same role.

"The overtly supernatural gifts are clearly in evidence throughout Acts and have some significant role to play in the spread of the gospel in Acts. Would you disagree?"
No, I think this statement of yours is accurate. But I also think the situation of the church and the world is very different now to how it was then, and part of that seems to be that clearly supernatural gifts aren't as prominent in most Christians' lives.

(Or perhaps they weren't then; after all, we only have accounts of the evangelism of two or three of the most prominent preachers, and if you read the right Christian biographies you can get the impression similar things still happen to them. We don't know how much spiritual gifts were in use by churches other than the one in Corinth, AFAIK; perhaps there was significant variation even then?)
Oct. 8th, 2009 12:23 pm (UTC)
What is your assessment of the involvement of the two churches in the local community, in Evangelism, and in training and building up Christians (and young Christians, and so on)?

A significant factor to me in choosing my next church is how I'm going to be used, and how I'm going to be trained. I think I may be suited for being something like a small group leader - but I lack the correct character and training. My hope would be that if I went to Eden for x years I could develop that so that if pigwotflies and I go somewhere quite different from Eden where there is a shortage of small group leaders, that I would be useful there.
Oct. 8th, 2009 12:37 pm (UTC)
Evangelism, probably about the same - they seem to have a similar frequency of evangelistic events and of exhortations to personal evangelism.

Community involvement, about the same: both have a toddler group, City has a money advice centre and Eden has a shoppers' cafe, etc.

Training/discipleship, hard to say, because that's a long-haul thing and we haven't been at Eden very long. For new Christians they have Alpha and Christianity Explored respectively.
(no subject) - ex_robhu - Oct. 8th, 2009 12:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Community involvement - railwaymouse - Oct. 8th, 2009 01:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Community involvement - woodpijn - Oct. 8th, 2009 01:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Community involvement - railwaymouse - Oct. 8th, 2009 02:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Community involvement - alextfish - Oct. 8th, 2009 01:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 8th, 2009 05:29 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your very interesting post.

In July-August we applied for membership of Eden.

Apologies for focusing on a comparatively unimportant part of it, but as an outsider, I'm curious. What does applying for membership involve?
Oct. 8th, 2009 05:44 pm (UTC)
No problem at all; I'm happy to talk about it all :)

The principal part is an interview with one of the lead pastors - in this case, Julian. This was nice because he already knew Rachael from several years ago. He sent through some documents on the church's theological position and so on, which are also available on the church's website. We're not required to agree with all of them, but he wanted to show us them and see what we thought.

He basically talked through what's involved in being a member. That's a few commitments on our part such as going to the church regularly, praying for them regularly, getting involved in some kind of serving, and so on; and also a few commitments on their part, such as caring for our spiritual well-being.

After the interview, he went away and talked to the other elders, and some weeks later a notice appeared in the notice sheet saying "The elders have approved the following people for membership of the church: Alex and Rachael Churchill."

That's an outline. If there's any bit you'd like to know more about, do feel free to ask :)
(no subject) - woodpijn - Oct. 8th, 2009 09:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Oct. 8th, 2009 06:28 pm (UTC)
Speaking as someone who has VERY little understanding of the theology involved (Buddhist by way of cultural Judiasm), I do think that I for one fall under your view on the "Triumph/Sin" spectrum, though instead of "sin" I would use "temptation," of course.

Just... a thought. I've been thinking more theologically and mystically lately, so thought I'd add my $0.02.
Oct. 8th, 2009 09:41 pm (UTC)
Your $0.02 is gratefully appreciated :)
Oct. 8th, 2009 10:18 pm (UTC)
*hugs* It sounds like the move is right for you and Rachel - and I hope that God will do great things through your time at Eden,

[I encounted the 'Christians are dead to sin' attitude at work CU, where we were focussing on Romans, especially Romans 6. The group leader explained that we were like radios who were now tuned to god instead of sin, and should rejoice that we were free of urges to sin. This didn't match particularly well with my experience of life, but then I'm never sure if I'm a Proper Christian any way. It's nice in a way to hear someone else with the same doubts]
Oct. 11th, 2009 10:52 pm (UTC)
Well, from what you are saying, I'm really glad you moved! Living the Christian life is a fight, constantly confessing sin, asking the Holy Spirit to make you aware of current and past sins that need confessing - anywhere there is unconfessed sin, the enemy can take ground.

Given it's Eden you moved too, I'm curious who is in your small group and if I know any of them...
Oct. 12th, 2009 12:03 am (UTC)
Have you shared the content of this post with Nick? It might be helpful for him for you to do so.
Oct. 12th, 2009 08:34 am (UTC)
Not this post specifically, but the content is the same as the stuff we said to him when we met up with him just before leaving.
( 31 comments — Leave a comment )