Re. Newday (or Renewed, eh?)
In no particular order, then, here are six things that struck me about Newday 2014.
1. The statistics are remarkable. Facts and figures don’t tell the whole story, of course but Newday has grown in delegate numbers every year for a decade, and there are now around 7000 people on site, 6000 of whom are teenagers. This year, there were 240 reported healings, over 400 recommitments, 321 first time responses to the gospel spread across (I think) six separate meetings, and perhaps most astonishingly, an offering of £140,000 for world mission. Any way you slice it, that’s wonderful.
2. Ephesians 4 gifts are alive and well. Many Christian events are packed with messages from people like me: Bible teachers who deliver the same sorts of messages they preach in their local churches, just on a larger scale. Some others are packed with quasi-inspirational flannel, which again represent exactly the sort of content the delegates hear week by week, just in a bigger setting. Others, driven by the need to maximise delegate numbers, invite celebrity speakers who reflect the sort of content the delegates are prepared to pay for, which once again replicates their usual experience of Christian ministry. What I love about Newday is that you have apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers operating together, which not only varies the content of the main sessions across the week (world mission, eschatology, eating disorders, everyday evangelism, and so on), but also the gifts operative within a particular meeting (such that it is not unusual to have a sermon from one person, a response from another with a different gift, and a prophetic exhortation from another). Talking about the use of Ephesians 4 gifts is good. But demonstrating it is better.
3. Diversity requires intentionality. Most Bible weeks of my acquaintance are incredibly monochrome, being largely middle aged, middle class, and white affairs (which is unsurprising if you consider the people you usually see on British campsites). Newday, in contrast, is encouragingly diverse, both ethnically and culturally, and has a far more urban feel than any Christian camp I have seen. This has not come naturally, but in response to sustained effort: thinking carefully about the on-stage team, integrating dance music and hip-hop into corporate worship, providing an eclectic after-hours programme, creating venues with particular demographics in mind, and so on. Personally, I wouldn’t know how to boss the kingdom skank if my life depended on it, and much as I’d hate to cast unwarranted aspersions on the streetwiseness of the theologically minded, I would imagine that was true of most regular Think Theology readers. But they’re not pitching the event at me, and they’re not pitching it at you. (It’s just as well. Events pitched at me often end up with talks that are about vision rather than the gospel, and songs that sound like they’ve all been written by The Lighthouse Family.) They’ve thought carefully about the demography of the nation - not just the white, rural bits - and designed things accordingly. The results, increasingly, are encouraging.
4. Inconspicuous competence is beautiful. On a good day, my Christian service is conspicuously competent; on a bad day, it is conspicuously incompetent. The nature of what I do - writing, speaking, leading - means that people almost always know when I have served them in some way, whether I’ve done it well or not. At Newday, however, there is a vast amount of inconspicuous competence, and it’s truly beautiful. The level of unnoticed excellence in numerous areas is striking, especially in those (catering, toilets, security, venue decor and hosting, afternoon activities) that are often done in a fairly slapdash way at Christian events. No doubt this is helped by the fact that Phill Gray, who runs the whole thing, is both inconspicuously competent himself, and able to teleport; his habit of appearing out of thin air like an omnipresent butler when you need something would be unsettling if it weren’t so useful, and evidently reflects either an all-knowing prescience or a gleeful freedom from the constraint of physical laws. But the culture of inconspicuous competence runs throughout the organisation of the event, despite the fact that they everybody is volunteering, and because everybody is camping, nobody is sleeping. It’s a sight to see.
5. Anyone who does not enter the kingdom of heaven like a teenager will never enter it. I’m sure there are a lot of people who, looking out at the worshipping crowds, would be cynical about the hype, the lights, the implicit peer pressure, the suggestibility, and so on. As in: you’re responding now, but will you still be following Jesus in October, young man? Or: 240 healings? Really? But quite aside from the fact that huge efforts are made to counteract these factors - verifying stories, de-hyping meetings, working closely with youth leaders, elders and referral teams, and so on - we are surely intended to regard the sort of innocent faith and abandon that characterise teenagers as worthy of emulation rather than cynicism or ridicule. For my money, the jumping, whooping, wholehearted trusting, running to the front in desperate repentance, noisy celebrating, partying, reckless giving and cheering when someone testifies to healing are all things we need far more of in the church, and not less. Anyone who doesn’t enter the kingdom like a teenager, with faith that borders on the naive and commitment that borders on the foolish, will never enter it.
6. We - Newfrontiers, that is - are more together than we are apart. Perhaps the greatest delight for me personally, in being at Newday for almost the entire week, was to see how many of my friends from different “spheres” had come to the event, and supported it with their time, their young people and (almost certainly) their finances. At a time when several networks are running their own events, it is hugely encouraging to see so many churches from across the country represented, especially when you consider the potential opportunity cost of promoting Newday to a congregation alongside other festivals, programmes and events. The reason this is encouraging, however, is not primarily that it means Newday remains large, viable and growing, nor that teenagers get to experience gatherings of 7000 rather than 700 (though those are good things too). The main reason is that Newday expresses, in a tangible form not visible in quite the same way in any other context, the “together” more than the “apart”, the “one” rather than the “many”, that Newfrontiers as a whole still represents. Rural and urban churches; black majority and white majority churches; churches which are outstanding at mission and contextualisation, churches which are outstanding at pursuing encounters with the Spirit, and churches which are outstanding at doing both; big churches and small churches; and all of them thrown in together, cheek by jowl, for a week of corporate celebration, teaching, tents, football tournaments, dodgem cars and water fights. I love that. As somebody put it once, we’re more together than we are apart.
Long may it continue.