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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Monday, 11 August 2008

Tell me are you a Christian child, and I said "ma'am I am tonight!"

Watched "Make me a Christian" on channel 4 last night. It was quite good viewing but raised a number of concerns too.

It's like a cross between "the Monastery", Big Brother, supernanny and life laundry. The idea is that a motley selection of people of all ages and social backgrounds are mentored by a group of ministers (all capable of landing modelling contracts, in passing) as they attempt to live a Christian life for three weeks.

All the Biblical input was fine; the starting point was "God loves you, no matter what you've done".

The thing was, they started with a formal Eucharist at York minster - hardly the most user friendly service for unchurched or ex-church people.

The mentors were then shown visiting some of the group in their homes to get to know them. This looked fairly innocuous to start with, but then the alarms went off because there was some pretty heavy insistence on change - removal of books and other items from houses and flats, and an enforced change in behaviour (in the case of a sexually promiscuous man).

Now here's the rub; in real life, when discipling a new convert, you might want them to change certain things but (in my book) you wouldn't wade in quite so heavily, being instead a little more patient and reliant on the power of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of the church, to transform the life of the disciple.

In this show, though, the starting point is not a conversion to a living faith, but a TV camera driven decision to live by a set of rules; this is not the same thing. I don't think prayer got much of a mention last night, although Bible reading was high on the agenda.

I guess the time constraints have meant that things are hurried up, but in real life if I did that sort of thing to someone I wouldn't see them for dust! It may well be that this would be the case on the show were it not for the 15 minutes of fame that having cameras along will bring.

What worries me most is that people like the participants - say "seekers" or whatever you want to call them, will watch this show and think that all ministers behave in this way towards their flocks. Nothing could be further from the truth from my perspective.

Yet it wasn't that I disagreed with the aim - it was just the means that made me cross. In a way this is like the thing about Rowan Williams and his two opinions about gays. If he only had 3 weeks to sort it out, he might be a little more forthright in his leading, but as he is a patient, prayerful and humble leader, he is listening to other voices and allowing his theology to be shaped by the place he finds himself in. So he keeps his personal theology in the background.

By contrast in "Make me a Christian", what would be many church leaders' underlying personal beliefs and practices are dragged to the surface and put into practice jackboot style, for reasons of brevity and "to make good TV". We all wish things would move along faster, but it would be disastrous if we pushed them this hard in real life.

In our churches here our outreach and pastoral care is founded on the principle of "belong, believe, behave", i.e. get people to feel they belong, give them the opportunity to find out what they do or don't believe (giving them the chance to encounter and respond to Christ through the Holy Spirit along the way), and thereby with God's help enabling the transformation of their behaviour.

Don't get me wrong, I do believe in the power of God to transform lives overnight (hence the title of this post which by the way refers to Marc Cohn's original not the Cher cover version), I just think that "Make me a Christian" is doing it the wrong way round and seems therefore to have shut God out of the process.

According to the taster clips though, this rather extreme pastoral method bears some fruit in the next episode. We shall see.

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