Make Me A Christian
by Paul Hazelden


Introduction

The text on the Channel 4 web site goes as follows:

Make Me a Christian

C4, Sundays 10, 17 and 24 August 2008 at 7pm

The Reverend George Hargreaves thinks Britain is in a state of moral decline and that a return to a more 'Christian' way of life would stop the rot. He and his team of mentors aim to show how by convincing a group of non-Christian volunteers to live by the teachings of the Bible for three weeks.

In this three-part series, a group of volunteers from around Leeds in West Yorkshire give up their normal lives and attempt to live like Christians for three weeks. They're not obvious candidates for such an experiment - there's:

Their mentors come from different branches of Christianity but they share a number of core beliefs.

First stop is York Minster - an awe-inspiring cathedral that's almost 1,000 years old, where they are asked to participate in a communion service. Then it's back to Leeds, where George Hargreaves gives each volunteer a Bible and asks them to read some every day.

The mentors visit the volunteers in their own homes, to get a picture of their lives and to give them guidance. The parents are asked to spend 15 minutes each day with their children. The lesbian is ordered to get rid of her explicit pictures and books. The young man and his pregnant girlfriend are given some instruction in the basics of Christianity. The lap-dancing manager is discovered to have more than a passing interest in witchcraft and magic - her books and ceremonial paraphernalia are taken away. The womanising 20-something is persuaded to agree not to 'look lustfully at a girl'. The biker, so far, is challenging every instruction and the others are beginning to get fed up with his refusal to listen.

All this is just the start of their three hard weeks. Can they embrace Christian ideals and learn to live in a different way or will their old lives prove just too strong to resist?

Response

I hardly know where to start. This is just so awful, on so many different levels. With a very few exceptions, almost every thing that is done to these volunteers or said to them is missing the mark - either irrelevant, unimportant or just plain misleading.

There are four 'professional' Christians involved, and if this show demonstrates the quality of Chritian leadership in the UK today, then it is no wonder the churches are emptying. Actually, I don't think it does, and I don't think they are, but that's not the point.

The show talks about 'living by the Bible' and 'living like a Christian' as if the two are the same. Different people interpret and apply the Bible in vastly different ways, but there is no recognition of this in the programme. And they completely ignore the basic point that the only way to live like a Christian is to have the Holy Spirit living within you, to guide and empower you. Even with the Holy Spirit, most Christians do not succeed in living like a Christian. Does anyone? Only if you adopt an inadequate, external and superficial definition of what it means to live like a Christian.

The first paragraph sets the scene:

The Reverend George Hargreaves thinks Britain is in a state of moral decline and that a return to a more 'Christian' way of life would stop the rot. He and his team of mentors aim to show how by convincing a group of non-Christian volunteers to live by the teachings of the Bible for three weeks.

Actually, I'm not against what they are trying to do, according to this description. Is Britain in a 'state of moral decline'? Well, maybe. I'm not convinced. Every generation believes it is in a period of moral decline. But, whether we are or not, I agree that teaching people to live within a broadly Christian set of moral values can result in a happier, healthier and more prosperous society. The values work, even if you don't believe them.

But that is not what is happening in the programme. The first thing is that they are taken to a Cathedral and expected to participate in a communion service. This may be Christian ritual, but it is not teaching people about Christian moral values, and why you should live by them.

My guess, and I hope I'm wrong, is that the clergy involved have no understanding or experience of evangelism, and so adopt an osmosis approach to the subject: if we can get these people going to Christian places, performing Christian rituals, and surround them with Christian symbols and images, then maybe they will become Christians. It doesn't work that way.

They have some wonderful opportunities, and are just throwing them away. The militant atheist was traumatised by a church school in which the Christians showed no love - according to him, and sadly I believe him. He does not need to be told what to do: the Christians need to confess and repent of the sin that was committed against him as a child by the church. Of course he hates the sort of Christianity he was shown - I hate it too.

The lap-dancing manager doesn't need her lifestyle rubbished: she needs to be told that she is precious to God, and beautiful in His sight just as she is. It doesn't help to be told that her need of clothes and shoes and surgery is sin. She needs to understand that those things are not needed, and that they cannot provide what she is looking for - but she can feel good about herself, and it is very easy. Is it possible that there is a God? Is it possible that you are very precious to Him, and He wants you to know that? Is it worth spending some time exploring these possibilities? Because, if these things are true, then this truth makes all the difference in the world.

Postscript

I have just watched the last program in the series, and I must confess: I was relieved.

We missed the previous program, but there were plenty of flashbacks - more of what we saw in program one. But this week they tried a different approach.

I can imagine the scene: the four professionals get together for a team meeting at the end of week two. They are all despondent: we have tried for two weeks to get them performing Christian rituals, taking part in Christian services, and surrounding them with Christian images. We have preached at them every day, and none of it has done any good at all. What's left?

Actually, I'm sure that it is not the case that nothing had been achieved by the end of week two. But, for most of the group, the results had been pretty minimal at best.

What was left was listening to the participants, and getting them involved. Why on earth did they not do this from the start? From what they showed, nothing the participants did this week could not have been done on, or from, the first day. But this week they engaged each participant in an appropriate way, and gave them a group project to work on.

They even took them to a Pentecostal church service - one in which the members of the congregation take an active part, and are not expected to just sit back, watch what someone else is doing, and say or sing the words they are given. And it worked. The volunteers were touched - changed - by the experience. They even, some of them, said they enjoyed the experience. Gosh. Perhaps if they go to a service they enjoy, they might continue going after the program is finished.

Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that Pentecostal services are good and liturgical Anglican or Catholic services are bad. You get good and bad experiences of both, although I suspect that a dire Pentecostal service is a much worse experience for an outsider than a dire Anglican service. But different people need different things, and these people could not beneft from the anonimity of a large liturgical service, or from the familiarity of the same words being repeated over months and years. They needed something to engage the heart and the mind, and this service provided it.

The biker gets to spend a day in a Christian project caring for elderly people in the community. He doesn't like old people, but he takes part anyway, and at the end of the day he is singing the praises of the project, of Christians who put their faith into practice in this way, and he has made a genuine connection with some of the old people. This one day has changed him more than all the previous days put together. He was put into contact with people showing genuine love, in practical ways.

At the end, every one of the volunteers had a chance to say something - to 'give their testimony'. Everyone said they had been chanced, and it was a worthwhile experience. They seemed open to discovering more about God, and to growing as people. What more could you ask for?

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