21 February 2020
By Clive Marsh
The Vice-Presidential Cupboard has been filling up with all sorts of useful material during the year. Not only is there a copy of Talking of God Together, a resource which has been out for a couple of years now to help us speak more naturally and easily about God and faith. It has been joined by the more recently published Talking of God with Others, a book designed to help groups work through a series of sessions to enable us to speak of our faith with people who have little or no faith and have questions about Christianity.
Both are available from Methodist Publishing. In addition, there’s a free resource – a slick pack of A5-sized cards called Our Church’s Future Story, which churches can use to think about and plan for their future mission. The cards suggest a number of exercises that churches can do to have the conversations that need to be had. Resources galore, then!
And that’s just the start. Alongside these useful Methodist resources are plenty of others.
To give just one further example, I’ve been asked, some 27 years after I wrote my first, to write a Grove Booklet for a new series being launched in April on themes in Christian Doctrine. I’m to produce one called What is Salvation For?
In some ways it will be a summary of the lengthier, more academic treatment of the subject I offered a couple of years ago in A Cultural Theology of Salvation (OUP 2018). Grove Booklets are short, punchy treatments of a particular topic and there are many series on the go all the time (e.g., ethics, worship, mission and evangelism, pastoral issues, Bible). There are eleven series in all and four per year are published in each series.
I like their marketing strapline: ‘Not the last word…but often the first.’ What the Grove series can do is ask a writer to tackle a new topic, or an old topic in a fresh, contemporary way to ‘get something out there’ in the public domain so that Christians in local churches can get a decent discussion going.
I’ve collected a great many Grove Booklets over the years simply as I’ve heard someone say ‘there’s a Grove booklet on that’, or stumbled across one by chance, as the only treatment of a topic I had become aware of (video-gaming, for example). I’ve often thought that a good exercise would be to put 66 different Grove Booklets together in one heap, pretending that they are bound together as a single book. It would be a good illustration of what the Bible itself is like: a disparate collection of texts which, together, function as a helpful compendium of material to help us get through life.
The form of all these resources is telling. They are short booklets (20+ pages for the Grove series, 70 or 90 pages, or 18 cards for the Methodist Publishing series). In other words, they are designed to be accessible, not too demanding, easily usable. Whether those of us who are writers ‘get it right’ in terms of pitch of language, of course, will be a matter for debate. Our work is scrutinised by others first (‘that paragraph was a bit complicated; make it simpler!’; ‘stop using such long words all the time’). Don’t be a writer if you’re not prepared to receive criticism!
But however accessible a text may be – even after the editing process has done its work – there is still the challenge issued by someone who says ‘I don’t read books’. Christianity – like Judaism before it and Islam after it – is a ‘religion of the book’, though we also need to remember that most Christians for most of Christian history would not have been able to read for themselves. As liberating as literacy can be, being able to read is not a prerequisite for being Christian.
The responsibility upon those of us who can, and do, read, then, is to make accessible the insights and activities of the resources which are available. The exercises need to be used, the group discussions need to be led, and the talking needs to happen.
Here, then, is my challenge for this month. It’s not only about ensuring that resources don’t remain in the cupboard. It’s about making sure they are used. Barbara and I have been doing our best to use the book we’ve written together, by leading sessions on it, not just simply let it do its own work – though we hope it does that too. But we all need to go one step further than simply saying ‘go and read that’.
We would do well in church life to do more of the ‘let’s talk this through together’ approach. There’s probably even a link there with early Methodism about the significance of small groups…
This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on 7 Feb 2020.