You’ll be familiar with books such as ‘How to Train your Dragon’, ‘How to be a Woman’ and ‘How to win friends and influence people’ but the hottest seller on the believers block is ‘How to be a bad Christian’ (and a better human being)’ by the Rev Dave Tomlinson and it has its own Bad Christian Ale to boot! That quirkiness is very ‘Dave T’. Liverpool-born Dave is a big fan of Liverpool Football Club, has three grown up children and grandchildren and sites amongst his hobbies, bird watching, cooking and drinking ‘Good beer’.
Dave became involved with the early house church movement in the late 1960s and eventually became a national leader. He travelled overseas extensively, preaching and leading seminars for church leaders. But as you will have already surmised from his current book title, Dave was a round peg in a square hole in the house church scene and didn’t know where he did fit. His theology had become too progressive and exploratory for the more conservative world of charismatic house churches.
I first met Dave when he was running Holy Joes, a church in a pub in Clapham. He claimed it catered for disaffected churchgoers and people with no experience of church but who wanted to chew the fat over a pint or two. As a fully paid up member of an evangelical church I was unsure what I was letting myself in for, but despite the somewhat unorthodox setting this was for me, one of the first times I’d seen real Christian faith in action. Rather than ‘standing on street corners’ trying to hand out tracts to the disinterested Dave took the church directly the very people he wanted to share a pint of beer with.
In the midst of leading Holy Joes during the 1990s, he wrote a book called The Post-Evangelical, which tries to point the way for people who are disaffected with evangelical Christianity and want to re-orientate their faith. Both Holy Joes and Dave’s book were perfect timing for me, I’d left home, gone to university and could not for the life of me find a church that seemed to fit. Dave seemed un-phased back then by those who admitted to being part of the ‘church of the back-sliders’ and seemed to just welcome the questions from the ‘doubting Thomases like me!
Given the radical picture of Dave already painted The Church of England may seem an unlikely place for such a person to find his calling, but its broad church nature attracted him. I asked Dave if it was the ‘smells and bells’ of high church that attracted him.
He said: “Spiritually I had become more ‘catholic’ – more Eucharistic and sacramental – so I was attracted to the liberal catholic aspect of the Church.”
Dave said: “The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who ordained me in 1997 said to me ‘There will be much in the Church of England that will frustrate you, Dave, and you will be critical of many things. But the church will benefit from your criticism’.” Dave saw that as a ‘very generous welcome’.
Revelling in the launch of the book at the Jesus Arms at the recent Greenbelt festival there was an appreciative audience, not just for the free pints of ‘Bad Christian Ale’ on offer but for Dave’s incredible straight talking, the absolute declaration that he is a Christian.
As a vicar (he accepted a full time position at St Luke’s Church in Holloway in 2000) of course he really wants people to come to church, but he recognises that many folk, whilst being extremely kind human beings, often giving up their own time to help others, don’t necessarily feel that they can attend church. In the opening chapter of the book Dave talks of taking the funeral of a parishioner, the deceased’s relatives often say, ‘Sorry Dave I don’t come to church enough’. Dave’s response? ‘God doesn’t give a monkeys fart whether you go to church or not!’
Dave believes God cannot be contained in churches, being much more expansive. Nevertheless St Luke’s church under Dave’s direction is the most inclusive church I’ve ever attended. As Dave says: “St Luke’s is a glorious mishmash of people, some of whom I can’t imagine getting together under any other pretext. My job is to facilitate this mishmash and to make the church a place of welcome to all.”
How to Be a Bad Christian asks the question of how we define Christianity and suggests it should not be confined to the trappings of formal religion and churchgoing, or by beliefs and dogma, but instead as a spiritual practice, a way of life, a way of knowing God in our mundane existence. Dave says: “What if we see ‘Christian’ as a verb instead of a noun?”
So who is he aiming at, the regular churchgoer who knows they aren’t perfect or the guy who shows up in church only for weddings and funerals?
“The book’s written for the hordes of people who are ‘bad Christians’,” Dave explains, “who never go near a church, who shrink from the idea of reciting a creed or singing hymns, yet who (perhaps inadvertently) follow Christ’s way through generous, compassionate and honest lives.”
He continues: “In the course of my work as a parish priest I meet them all the time: people like Kay, a single mother on social benefit who frequently stretches her meals to include local waifs and strays, and Greg, the caretaker of a block of flats in my parish who voluntarily doubles as a carer for elderly residents with no one to look after them.
“People like Jane, a dedicated schoolteacher and expert at breeding self-confidence into seven-year-olds. People like Peter, a funeral director who supports grieving mourners as if he were their big brother.”
I ask Dave if, rather like the Dalai Lama, the religion he’s advocating is actually merely ‘kindness’, he says that been levelled at him before.
“People sometimes say, ‘Aren’t you just telling people to be kind and loving?’ Yes I am. But there is no ‘just’ about it. Jesus said that the entire law and the prophets is summed up in this ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ And when the rich young man asked Jesus ‘What must I do to have eternal life?’, he replied ‘Sell your goods and give to the poor’.”
How to Be a Bad Christian is pointing readers to a more satisfying and purposeful life by following the way of Jesus – loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself – which doesn’t depend on believing certain things or going to church.
Not surprisingly the book has already generated some controversy. Dave is not concerned that he will receive complaints from Christians who believe that it’s not enough to be a good human being – that the church is everything and unless you have ‘converted’ and are fully committed to the church community you are doomed to hell.
“Jesus, in fact, never once said ‘Believe these things’,” Dave said.
“He constantly said ‘Follow me’. Many people who never go near a church do in fact follow the way that Jesus taught and exemplified.”
Dave is thrilled that it seems the book is reaching out to the people who once called themselves Christians before something led them away. One woman wrote a heartfelt letter saying how touched she was about Dave’s revealing that his daughter is gay. “When my own daughter came out,” this woman wrote, “it felt like a bereavement, we have since come to terms with it but we have been forced to leave our church.”
This is exactly the kind of thing (along with the fact that there are still no women bishops) that greatly irritates Dave. “If the church fails to connect with people emotionally, spiritually and intellectually, it has no future in the 21st century. But if we are willing to evolve and adapt our structures, forms and message to the needs of people today, I believe there is a great future for Christianity within our society’
What’s Dave’s vision for the church? His answer was heartfelt.
“My vision for the church in general is for it to be a place that connects with the spiritual and material needs of the wider community. Millions of people never darken the doors of a church, yet there is great spiritual hunger and curiosity within people. But we need to communicate the Christian message in terms that people can understand and benefit from. I think churches should be centres of spirituality, not places of religious formality.”
The one message I hope people take from this book is: God cannot be contained within churches or religious belief systems. God is greater. God is everywhere. God is in everyone’s life if only we can recognise it.
What does Dave’s own Bishop think of it? His publisher sent a preview copy to Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, who kindly added his quotation for the opening pages… “In view of what Dave Tomlinson says about religion and conventional church life I do hope that a recommendation from his Bishop will not put people off reading a book that is so rich in humanity and written by someone who is a convincing and compassionate pastor, – but possibly not a very good member of the Deanery Synod.”
The book is superb and made me laugh and cry in equal measures, I intend to give a copy to as many people as I can, I really believe the ripples of kindness will filter out into the wider community, even into the pubs and clubs, and we’ll all be richer for it.
How to be a bad Christian is published by Hodder and Stoughton
© Religious Intelligence Ltd
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