Youth leaders column from Dave Fenton: What is a youth leader?

Youth Leaders Column

A seemingly simple question. It’s the person who looks after the young people. 

But what are they supposed to do? Whether they are salaried or volunteers, youth leaders need to have some idea of the expectations of the church they serve. If they are told to simply ‘look after’ the young people, the church’s expectation is probably close to babysitting. Keep them amused while the adults have a proper service.

Teach, disciple, care

Whatever the level of the appointment, your youth leader (or even better ‘youth minister’) is one who is set apart to teach, disciple and care for the young people of the church. That may sound obvious but, increasingly, in my conversations with youth ministers, I find that they are not clear about their role. They feel they have been given a role and left to get on with it. What can be done to counter this feeling of isolation?

A church is a complex place, with many activities and pressures on the leadership of the church. But, if they have been appointed by the church, they must be aware of what the church is thinking and planning. Whatever the plan, have the needs of the young people been considered if it affects what they do? When new initiatives are discussed (e.g. a new set up for small groups) are the youth minister and her/his team included in that conversation. If a youth minister is not included in such a conversation they will increasingly feel like a sideshow.

A youth minister is one who is serving in one facet of the church’s life. Whatever is in place to support those who are serving should be in place for the youth minister. A regular meeting with church leaders to pray and consider issues of common interest can be helpful. Most churches commission youth and children’s workers, but then can easily neglect them and assume the work is progressing. Home groups can ‘adopt’ a member of the youth team, invite them occasionally to their meetings and pray for them whenever the home group meets.

Needing support

So, in general terms, youth ministers are key members of a church community who need to feel supported and cared for in their work. I spoke to one lady recently who worked in her secular employment all week, came home on Friday night and then got herself out to meet with the young people. In eight years no one in her church had asked her how she was doing. She was about to write a letter of resignation – that can be avoided and those eight years of experience put to good use.

Dave Fenton – associate minister at Christ Church Winchester and Training Director of Root 66 which runs training courses for youth ministers across the UK. 


This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Prayer fuel: News from the UK and around the world

Prayer FuelHere are a handful of news-bites from around the UK and around the world included in the June issue of EN. May these encourage us as well as spur us on to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world facing severe persecution.

WEST by Northwest

WEST teamed up with the North West Partnership in April so that students will be able to study together for the Graduate Diploma and Masters-level degree programmes at the centre in Liverpool.

Jonathan Stephen, principal of WEST, said: ‘This is a highly significant development for WEST, as we continue to fulfil our commitment to “bringing the academy into missional church”’. WEST

Less protected

Christians are afforded less protection for their beliefs by the state compared to those who practise other religions, suggests a late April survey.

Of the 2000 people surveyed exclusively for The Telegraph, nearly half thought British believers had less protection. This figure rises to 62% among those who identify as non-practising Christians. The poll also reveals that 56% see Britain as a Christian country.
The Christian Institute

NI: rejecting SSM

The Northern Ireland Assembly rejected gay marriage by an outright majority for the third time on April 29.

Assembly members voted 51 to 43 against redefining marriage at Stormont. Pro-traditional marriage campaigners say those pushing for a change should ‘take the hint’. The private member’s motion in support of same sex marriage was tabled by six members from the Alliance, Sinn Fein and the Green parties, and called on the Minister of Finance and Personnel to introduce gay marriage legislation.
The Christian Institute

Australia: Christian

The April elected Premier of New South Wales, Liberal MP Mike Baird, is reported to be a committed Christian.

Baird, 46, was elected unopposed. He attends an Anglican church in his electorate of Manly (a beachside suburb of Sydney). Bruce Clark, senior minister at St Matthew’s on the Corso, said that Baird is a strongly committed Christian man.

Fellowship of European Broadcasters / Eternity Newspaper

Google: 0 results

Google has bowed to pressure from American ‘pro-choice’ group NARAL by agreeing to ban advertisements for crisis pregnancy centres that educate women on the alternative options to abortion, it was reported in early May.

NARAL campaigned extensively to force Google to remove advertisements for pro-life pregnancy services after complaining that the adverts appeared 79% of the time when users entered the search terms ‘abortion clinics’. Christian Concern

USA: illegal meetings?

Fairfax County, Virginia, has proposed a new law that some believe will outlaw Bible studies held in a home, it was reported in early May.

The law violates the First Amendment right of freedom to assemble in that it states ‘regular gatherings of 50 people or more cannot meet more than three times in 40 days’. One person is concerned that the law is punishing the many for the actions of the few, as noise orders could be given and cars towed away if they violated laws, which is preferable to making a law that stops lawful meetings. Christian Headlines

For more news and prayer fuel from around the world, subscribe to EN for monthly updates.

A Constant Gardener by Pastor Anonymous: Man of mystery?

Constant Gardener Trowel

Here are 20 things your pastor wished you knew about him.

1. He knows and feels that ministry is a wonderful privilege (despite appearances which suggest otherwise, sometimes).

2. He is sometimes overwhelmed by a sense of failure in his ministry to you.

3. He’s not always sure if you know how much he loves and respects you.

4. He wishes you would open up to him more. He’s not a mind-reader, and he sometimes feels that you are content to keep him at arm’s length. Are you?

5. There are times when all he wants to hear from you is ‘thank you.’

6. He’s been sure that he should leave your church a few times already. He’s slogged through times of almost overwhelming darkness, as well as invitations to look at other churches. He’s stayed because he loves you.

7. He longs that you would say something (anything!) to him about the sermon on Sunday, or what you’re learning in the Bible.

8. He goes home from Sunday services thinking about you. Sometimes he even dreams about you. You are on his heart and mind far more than you realise.

9. He actually doesn’t care if you or anyone else in the church forgets him when he’s retired or gone to glory. As long as you’re safe in heaven, he’ll be more than happy.

10. He (mostly) loves preaching. He would hate you to think that it’s a burden to him.

11. He knows that no one in the church, not even his Elders, knows how difficult it is to preach, week in, week out.

12. Even when you’re at your most spiritually cold and fault-finding, he genuinely longs for a deepening spiritual friendship with you.

13. He puzzles over how much you think about your salary, but never think about how much your church salaries him.

14. He prays for you regularly. This is a heart, will and time commitment.

15. He needs your prayers and your encouragements. Pastors are in the devil’s firing-line.

16. Nothing thrills him more than finding out that you’ve been busy in gospel work, without advertising your work to others.

17. He loves being a part of the church family, as a regular member, as well as the pastor. He loves eating, laughing and sharing life with his Christian family.

18. He deeply respects your complicated,busy life. When he’s calling for commitment to the church, he’s not forgotten all that you’re already juggling.

19. He remembers your acts of kindness to him, probably long after you’ve forgotten them.

20. He loves Jesus. Even when he gets it wrong as he pastors you, he’s trying to work out his love for the Lord to you.

Pastor Anonymous is in full-time pastoral ministry somewhere in the UK!

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Anglican update: Changing times

Anglican Update

Reactions to the announcement of new guidelines for Church of England Schools on countering homophobic bullying have perhaps been predictable. On the one hand you have those who declare the guidelines themselves homophobic and on the other there are those who believe they will prevent Christian children expressing biblical views in the playground.

The Church of England finds itself, once again, in the eye of a storm. Stonewall may have been key advisors for this report but you only have to look at the comments on Justin Welby’s interview with the gay news service, Pink News, to see that many people will not be satisfied until there is wholesale change in the church’s teaching. But these are not just issues for the Anglican Church. How do Christians learn to live in a country that is no longer shaped by Christian values?

Of course, we have never considered England to be a ‘Christian country’ in any theological way. We know that God’s people are those he has rescued, by his grace, and who seek to live under his lordship. God’s people are scattered throughout the world. God is not actually an Englishman!

We have, however, lived in a country where our laws and customs have been founded on Christian values. This has generally allowed us to live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness, without threat of prosecution or imprisonment. We should be grateful for that blessing, but we should also recognise that times are changing.

Exciting or scary?

Perhaps we should see this as exciting and encouraging, rather than scary and disheartening. After all, as Justin Welby said earlier this month, ‘the Christian faith is much more vulnerable to comfortable indifference than to hatred and opposition’. I don’t know about you, but I fear I prefer comfortable indifference. I like to forget that Jesus warned me that his disciples would be hated.

It should not take a Church of England report to remind us that the Bible does not license hatred or bullying of anyone, for any reason, whether at work or in the playground. Neither does the Bible affirm sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage. Some will claim that this makes the Bible (and even God) homophobic, but as Christians we have the privilege of knowing the goodness of our Creator and the rightness of his Word. In a world that thinks tolerance means complete affirmation and the only sins are injustice and prejudice, it will be hard for us to be understood. But that doesn’t mean we should not try. Our task, whether we are five or 55, will be to find ways of expressing the hope that we have with gentleness and respect, so that those who speak maliciously against us will ultimately be ashamed.

Contend for the faith

There is much to do. Anglican evangelical leaders are working together to contend for the faith inside the Church of England and it was heartening that the leaders of GAFCON (Global Anglican Future Conference) met in London this month and encouraged us to persevere. But ultimately we place ourselves in the hands of the one who judges justly and died because we are all sinners; wonderfully, that is a truly ‘safe place’.

 Suzie Leafe – Director of Reform

This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Editors commentary: Time travelling prayers

timetravelWEBBeing the pastor of the same church for a long time is great.

One of the benefits is that you get to see the end of some stories which pastors who only dodge into a place for five or six years and then move on would never see. Recently I had just such an experience. Hopefully it will encourage you.

When I first came to the church over 30 years ago there was a lovely young family – a mum and dad plus three children. The younger two children became Christians but the older girl, Eleanor, did not. She was a delightful girl, bright and knowing her own mind, with the strength of character to stand alone as the unbeliever in a believing family. Many were the prayers to God of both individuals and the gathered church for her conversion. But nothing at all seemed to happen.


The years moved on and tragedy struck the family. The father was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Then, after what seemed to be a successful operation, came the onset of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. I visited him a number of times in the hospital and prayed – he, probably, unconscious of my presence. Sadly he died. The family was devastated. However, the effect was to confirm the Christians in their clinging to Christ and looking to his promise of eternal life, whereas Eleanor seemed confirmed in her scepticism and unbelief. Once again there were many prayers for the family.

Years passed. All the children had grown up and the mother remarried to a good Christian man. By now the two Christian children had married and moved away, but Eleanor remained single. After university she got a good job and had her own home in our town. Some of the church involved in one of the local choirs would see her there. She was friendly, but spiritually there was no change.

Then tragedy struck again. With her new marriage just a few years old, the mother was diagnosed with cancer and later died. Her new husband was heartbroken. Once again the children found themselves bereaved. Once again many prayers were offered by the church and other friends. That was around five years ago. That’s how things were.

Joyful rumour

But just a few months ago a rumour was whispered. After all these years, over 30 of them, Eleanor had become a Christian. She had a Christian friend at choir from an Anglican church who invited her along to an Alpha Course. There everything had fallen into place for her. We were overjoyed. But was the rumour true? Her stepfather, who had kept very much in touch, went to see her. She had indeed been saved. One of the first things she said to him I found very moving: ‘Do you think my mum and dad know?’.

Woman at peace

Then, this Easter, I was asked to go and preach a short message to an ecumenical walk of witness in the town. As a church we tend to steer clear of ecumenical stuff, but I’ll preach to anyone – so I took up the opportunity. There, as 400 or 500 people gathered on Good Friday morning, among the crowd I spotted Eleanor. I was thrilled. I was able to speak to her briefly. Her conversion was written all over her face. She was a woman at peace – at peace with God and at peace with herself.

Prayers of many years ago, prayers long forgotten, God had answered. Jesus taught his disciples that they should always pray and not give up (Luke 18.1).

John Benton

This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

100 Bible knowledge questions… and some other great links.

Links Worth A Look

Enjoy the following links!

Kevin DeYoung – 100 Bible knowledge questions – one way to equip those nominated for the eldership.

Thom Rainer – 8 Reasons I’d love to be a pastor again

The Resurgence – 10 ways to make your kids hate family devotions

Gospel Partnerships – Small group leader training

Unashamed Workman – What we need: Biblical bluntness

What’s coming up in the June issue of EN

June 2014 highlightsA few highlights to look forward to in the June issue of EN! It’s scheduled to arrive from the printers on Friday May 23. Of course you can always e-mail as well if you’d like a complimentary copy or if you’d like to subscribe!

Cityscape evangelism

Emma Jarvis

Emma Jarvis

Once Emma Jarvis was converted to Christ, the Lord gave her a great desire to share the gospel with others.

This led her to apply to spend a year with London City Mission (LCM), which she started last autumn after graduating from university. EN interviewed her about what it has been like so far.

en: What is your background and how did you become a Christian?
I grew up in Wiltshire with two brothers and my parents took us to church from the year dot.

Growing up, I was the kid that knew all the answers in Sunday school but knew that I wasn’t a Christian and was quite happy living the way I wanted to. I then went to university in Surrey and during my second year found myself going to (and enjoying) church and Bible studies more and more, and the Christians I got to know were a great influence. To make a long story short, I was stubborn and proud, but God was patient and kind. I realised what conversion was, the significance of Jesus’s life for me and what I needed to do about it and I became a Christian when I was 21.

en: What led you to spend a year with London City Mission?
I think as soon as I became a Christian I felt the desire to get other people to engage with God and realise that Jesus is important for them.

I did some beach missions during the summer, and got involved with evangelism on the university campus during my final year. I thoroughly enjoyed these and God gave me the confidence and willingness to do more. When it came to thinking about life after university, I wasn’t inspired to start on the job ladder but realised that my biggest passion was talking about Jesus, so I pursued mission opportunities and doing full-time Christian work.

I was half expecting to have to learn another language, but I heard about LCM because it was the focus of prayer at a church I was attending, so I investigated what I could do with them. I signed up to their gap year scheme called City Vision (CV) to start to test whether this was the kind of thing God wanted me to be doing.

en: Give us an overview of LCM’s work?
LCM is involved in a huge variety of ministries that all aim to help Londoners practically and spiritually, whether with local communities, workplaces, ethnic minorities, the marginalised and those being cared for.

Examples of some of the ministries include community centres, schools teams, cafés, workplace chaplains and a day centre for homeless people called Webber Street. There’s plenty more than that and it’s great to see so many different and creative ways to reach various communities and introduce them to Jesus.

en: Tell us about your work and what a ‘normal’ day involves?
 I work in Vauxhall Christian Centre three days a week, with the schools team in Morden one day a week, and I attend Urban Mission training lectures on the other day.

Two days are rarely the same, which I really like. As an example, a typical Friday in Vauxhall may involve meeting with my team in the morning, then spending a couple of hours doing door-to-door visits around the local blocks of flats. I would come back and help serve at our lunch club and then join in with a short Bible study and prayer session. The afternoon is then spent chatting with members of the community who drop by and setting up for our after-school girls’ club. When the girls arrive we spend two hours enjoying things like baking, table tennis and jewellery-making over a drink of hot chocolate, as well as a short spiritual talk. After that I make my way back home to Tower Bridge Road, normally pretty tired.

en: What is different about sharing Christ in an urban context rather than with students?
There are several differences between urban mission and the evangelism I was used to on campus.

The people in the local housing estates are not all the same age as me, they often have mind-blowing stories to tell and are in unfavourable financial circumstances. It seems that people’s identity is in their upbringing and what they have experienced, rather than in their education or aspirations. Bringing the Christian message into people’s lives is therefore different; university students often have a number of their own thought-out objections and questions, but the people I’m meeting now are often uninterested in, and unfamiliar with, debating and apologetics. However, they do have their own underlying objections. While students often want to discuss evolution and homosexuality, the people I meet want to talk about their life stories and struggles.

I have been encouraged by the example of Jesus, as he spent time with social outcasts and often engaged people’s minds by just asking questions. In the urban context that I work in, it is important to take a relational approach; there are numbers of people who are only willing to open up once trust and friendship have been established. This is true in all contexts but particularly so with some people in the community environment. We operate from a community centre and sharing Christ with some people feels like slow-motion evangelism; it is a gradual process for some people to become comfortable with coming to the centre and then engage in deeper conversations.

There are, however, a number of similarities: everyone seems equally willing to chat when in their dressing gown at any hour of the day. Also, my approach still needs to be reliant on God’s help at every moment and inspired by love. In both contexts people are frustratingly apathetic to life’s big questions, but Jesus is intriguing.

en: How would you encourage others to think about spending time with LCM?
I would encourage them whole-hearted-ly! There are several opportunities to work with LCM because they have so many ministries. They also offer ways to get involved for varying periods of time; a list and description of the different opportunities can be found on their website (

The Mission’s City Vision scheme is a good way to spend a year. Within just a few months I have learned a lot about evangelism and have been taught a lot about the Bible, mission and counselling. I’ve also been able to work alongside a number of different missionaries with a huge amount of experience and have met a wide diversity of people in communities that I would otherwise be unlikely to cross paths with. This has been great in broadening my perspective of society, God’s saving power and different ways that he can meet people’s needs.

Mission like this is not particularly easy and doesn’t always feel successful, but LCM’s work is definitely worthwhile, I’m well looked after, have great colleagues and housemates and it’s a privilege to be so openly working for God. My time here so far has deepened my trust in God’s control and, most importantly, I have got involved in sharing God’s love and his Word with people that are so often unreached. I would therefore encourage others to do the same.

This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

The Global War on Christians (book review)

THE GLOBAL WAR ON CHRISTIANS:The Global war on Christians
Despatches from the front lines of anti-Christian persecution
By John L. Allen Jr.
Image. 320 pages. £16.99
ISBN 978 0 770 437 350

It has been an astonishing last 12 months for books on the persecution of Christians when there has been such silence on the issue for so long.

First came Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack in late 2012; then the more simply titled, Persecuted: the Global Assault on Christians in March of 2013; and now on November 1 the latest and longest of the titles so far: The Global War on Christians: Despatches from the Front Lines of Anti- Christian Persecution.

Of the three, two are written by journalists with little history of reporting on the religious liberty arena — Rupert Short writing Christianophobia and John L Allen Jr., penning the latest book — as opposed to the battle-hardened trio of Paul Marshall, Leila Gilbert and Nina Shea.

Country by country

This is not always a fault of course, as they bring a bug-eyed enthusiasm to exposing statistics and trends that others in the field may have grown accustomed to tolerating, but what is fascinating is how similarly all three books read — they are all essentially journalistic briefings and round-ups of countries and regions where persecution of Christians is rife.

Of the three, it is Allen’s that stands out as the most comprehensive and well written, showing a nodding acquaintance with a far wider range of source material than the two previous books, and bringing a deep knowledge of Roman Catholic sources into play, which is most welcome.

Controversial statistics

At times, Allen can be a little too generous, and his adoption of the controversially high martyrdom statistics of Todd Johnston’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity — most significantly the claim that the number of Christian martyrs runs at 100,000 per year — can land him into unnecessary trouble when recourse to more sober statistics would have made the point just as well.

The first half of Allen’s book is well written but unremarkable. Like most authors in the field he starts with outrage at the unre-ported nature of the story of Christian persecution: ‘Why isn’t the whole world abuzz with outrage over the grotesque violations of human rights at Me’eter?’ he asks (p3). This is the vast concentration camp in Eritrea where 2,000 Christians are housed in containers that boil in the day and freeze at night.

Marshalling the evidence, he is bold to call the global persecution of Christians a ‘war’: ‘What other word are we supposed to use? We’re talking about a massive, worldwide pattern of violence and oppression directed against a specific group of people, often explicitly understood by its perpetrators as part of a broader cultural and spiritual struggle’(p8).

Why so underreported?

He then speculates helpfully as to why this global ‘war’ on Christians is so underreport-ed. The world at large fails to see the story because, following French philosopher and former government official Regis Debray’s analysis, the victims are too Christian to excite the Left and too foreign to interest the Right (p16).

As for the silence of Western churches, Allen puts it down to most Christians having ‘no personal experience of persecution’ (p17); and also a tendency to interpret Christianity in purely pietistic terms, or even ‘good cause fatigue’. He also warns against ‘inter-faith correctness’ which often hesitates to name inter-faith tensions for fear that dialogue channels may be compromised, and a Church life that is far too focused on internal squabbles and issues.

The first part of the book is an excellent round up of recent persecution incidents and trends, region by region. He covers Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe with a sure-footed and balanced overview.

No maps?

However, if it is a digest of incidents and trends one requires, probably Marshall, Gilbert and Shea’s round-up in Persecuted: the Global Assault on Christians is better value, especially as it is keyed to the underlying ‘engines’ that drive persecution, and not merely regions. But Allen does have to include this data. What amazes is that in an age of infographics, not a single publisher can attempt a map, table or graphic illustration of the extent of persecution worldwide. If, as Allen says, the West is full of Christians to whom the whole persecution story seems utterly foreign, then to give them no visual help whatsoever borders on the criminal.

Five myths addressed

Allen’s next two sections set his book apart. He first tackles five myths about Christian persecution that lead to the whole phenomenon being downplayed. Myth 1 is ‘…that Christians are at risk only where they’re a minority’: he exposes Christians who were killed in Christian majority countries such as Colombia, Kenya and the Philippines. Surprisingly, those he names were put to death by anti-Christian extremists, and he does not mention persecution at the hands of Christian institutions per se.

Myth 2 is ‘…that no one saw it coming’: a brilliant chapter that rightly chastises, for example, complacent officialdom in Turkey that continually claims that anti-Christian violence is sporadic and purely criminal, when in fact a whole culture is being corralled in an anti-Christian direction.

Myth 3 is ‘…that it’s all about Islam’ and he rounds up a galaxy of threats that lie entirely beyond Islam, such as ultranational-ism, totalitarian states, Hindu and Buddhist radicalism, organised crime, and even Christian radicalism, to name just a few.

The final two myths may be the most important, however, in delaying a groundswell of effective outrage at the extent of anti-Christian persecution. One is the myth that ‘…it’s only persecution if the motives are religious.’ Denial strategies are in place such that whenever someone experiences persecution, either ‘they were too aggressive,’ or ‘it’s probably all exaggerated,’ or most significantly, ‘they were not hurt from a religious motive.’

As Allen writes of this final denial strategy: it ‘holds that a particular act of persecution or brutality counts as ‘anti-Christian’ only if the motives of the perpetrator are specifically religious’ (p.216). But what about anti-Nazi Dietrich Bonhoeffer put to death for political motives? Or Eric De Putter in Cameroon, a Frenchman stabbed to death (July 2012) in a strange incident when he may have been intending to expose corruption in a university? Or two Catholic missionaries killed in Burundi by robbers, yet only resident in the region because of their Christian witness? Or Colombian pastors targeted by guerrillas because their faith compelled them to oppose the drug trade? Allen will not have this shrinkage, and opts for a fuller understanding of Christian witness in hostile cultures, so that the culture’s anti-Christian response can be considered as persecution.

The final myth is ‘…that anti-Christian persecution is a political issue,’ and what is meant here is that the suffering of Christians falls victim to politicisation. ‘Those on the political left may celebrate martyrs to corporate greed or to right-wing police states, but fear to speak out about the suffering of Christians behind the lines of the Islamic world,’ writes Allen (p.231). Then he adds: ‘Conservatives may be reluctant to condemn the situation facing Christians in the state of Israel or in regimes that are presently in fashion on the right as allies in the “war on terror”… Either way, the result is a reductive reading of the true score of anti-Christian persecution, and a double standard when it comes to engaging its protagonists’ (p.231).

Will policy makers care?

Allen’s final section is a round-up, perhaps somewhat optimistic in tone, of the significance and future role the whole issue could have in terms of politics and church life. Allen expects the persecution of Christians to be a ‘signature concern’ among policy makers in the 21st century.

One hopes he is right, and there is evidence for his view that three megatrends are combining to make religious freedom an idee fixe: the global South character of world Christianity is putting renewed pressure on the more liberal Christian institutions of the West, then the higher profile of suffering experienced by those in other religions, in addition to Christian suffering going thoroughly global (especially now that local churches and Christian expressions are under threat from a radical secularism). Christianity is also conscripted by Allen as a pro-democracy force, which again could impact upon the policy elite… if they have eyes to see.

Spiritual implications

It is perhaps appropriate that Allen largely ends with the spiritual implications of global persecution, a subject that is talked too little about. He talks of a new ‘ecumenism of the martyrs’, which could give a new impetus to the ecumenical movement. But also that the extent of Christians suffering under persecution could renew a theology ‘from below’, resulting in a stronger theological impetus that identifies the faith with the victims of suffering far more powerfully, whether that suffering comes purely from poverty or persecution; and indeed, for the holistic Allen, the two are rarely separated. Could a new focus on the persecuted millions usher us into a time of renewed Christian missionary ferment, as the sharper edges of Christ’s concern are shown in bold and attractive relief by the growing hostility?

No book ranges quite as widely as Allen’s in his portrait of the persecuted church today and the benefits that should accrue to all who pay attention to this underreported phenomenon. Above all, it is kind in its tone and its treatment of its sources, refusing to pin the cause of the persecuted to one patch of ideological terrain. For that reason alone, one hopes the book will be a great success.

For all that, reading a similar book for the third time in a row makes one long for another Solzhenitsyn to come along and put art at the service of the persecuted again. While Allen has provided the best overall briefing about persecution today — no mean feat — one has a sneaking suspicion that what is needed more urgently is not more brilliant (and better illustrated) summaries, but more authentic and in-depth story-telling.

World Watch Monitor

This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057

Unapologetic Christianity from Chris Sinkinson: Missing towns of Jesus

Unapologetic Christianity

Bethlehem and Nazareth are the places most associated with the life of Jesus prior to his public ministry.

Therefore, what better way to dismiss the Christian faith than claim that these towns never existed at the time of Jesus? They are the product of later, fanciful legends and promoted as a way of making a fast shekel out of religious tourism. James Randi, a popular American magician and atheist, boldly declares: ‘There simply is no demonstrable evidence from the Nazareth site that dates to the time of Jesus Christ’.

No donkey

A similar claim is made regarding Bethlehem. Though occupied in earlier times, some say it was abandoned during the time of Jesus. Israeli archaeologist Aviram Oshri has identified a different Bethlehem, nearer Nazareth, as thriving at the time of Jesus. Oshri comments: ‘It makes much more sense that Mary rode on a donkey, while she was at the end of the pregnancy, from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Galilee which is only seven kilometres than the other Bethlehem which is 150 kilometres’ (NPR News). The fact that the Gospels nowhere mention a donkey does not instill confidence in Oshri’s research. But what about the facts? Were Bethlehem and Nazareth inhabited during the early years of Jesus?

Bethlehem is sometimes dismissed because the Church of the Nativity that tourists visit only dates from 327 AD, long after the time of Jesus. But the question to ask is why was a church to venerate the nativity built here? The history of association with the nativity is much older. Justin Martyr (c.100-165 AD), who only lived 40 miles away from Bethlehem, identified a cave in the town as the site of Christ’s birth. Origen (c.185-254 AD) describes visiting the cave himself. Over 200 years of tradition, before the church was built, identify the site and give it authenticity. Furthermore, Bethlehem has revealed evidence of first century occupation, including pottery from that time.

The hamlet of Nazareth

What about Nazareth? In some ways, the first-century evidence is quite similar to that of Bethlehem. There is no evidence of a large city, monumental buildings or wealthy citizens at the time of Jesus. But there is evidence of an agricultural community. Pottery, a winepress and burial caves have borne witness to this period of habitation. In 2009 archaeologists revealed the remains of a stone -built house dating to the time of Jesus. It is estimated that Nazareth was a hamlet of about 50 houses during the first century.

First-century Nazareth and Bethlehem were the kind of locations that leave little evidence in the archaeological record. Little wealth means no monumental buildings and few coins or durable goods. However, new material continues to come to light. A discovery of an ancient bathhouse in 1993 may yet prove that Nazareth was more significant at the time of Jesus than previously thought.

What scale?

Critics dismiss the Gospels because there is no evidence for the ‘cities’ of Nazareth or Bethlehem at the time of Jesus. This objection arises from a misunderstanding of the Greek word polis, often translated ‘town’ or even ‘city’ (Matthew 2.23; Luke 2.4). But what is the difference between a hamlet, village, town or city? A textbook on town planning would need a precision over words like village or town that need not apply elsewhere. Matthew and Luke are not using this term in some technical sense. Their concerns are not with town planning but with recording history.

Historical Saviour

There is no reason to doubt the existence of Bethlehem and Nazareth, but there is reason to think again if we imagine them as large, wealthy cities. The reason to think again is because of what the Bible itself says. Of Nazareth, Philip asked: ‘Can anything good come out of there?’ (John 1.46). Of Bethlehem, prophecy already indicated its obscurity at the time of Christ’s birth. As the New Living Translation puts it: ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among the people of Judah’ (Micah 5.2). Jesus did not hail from a great city like London, New York or even Jerusalem, but from obscurity. Which leaves us the question, why do we still know so much more about this one man than his home towns? We don’t worship sacred sites, but we do worship an historical Saviour.

Chris is lecturer at Moorlands College and pastor of Alderholt Chapel. His books include Confident Christianity and Time Travel to the Old Testament published by IVP.

This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information. 0845 225 0057