I’m at Cliff College in Derbyshire this week, for the third of my four MA modules. This week is on Pioneering ministry within our current cultural landscape and again I’m listening to stuff which is very familiar, not only from my own reading, but my experience of ministry ‘in the real world.’ In the slight ivory tower of academia, the issues seem safe, recognisable and detached. There is something of a sense of movement towards which the church must move…this theoretical church in ones head, not grounded in the reality of back home.
The reality is that many churches in the UK are nowhere near grasping the huge significance of what is happening in our culture and what the future trajectory of the church looks like, and so see no need to move anywhere beyond the odd ‘tweak’ here and there. It can feel bleak, but then, I’m here with people who take the effort to pause, reflect, explore scripture, consider collective wisdom of both the academics, missiologists, sociologists and the practitioners…the people doing the stuff. Signs of hope can be identified, but the challenge remains huge.
I find myself uttering a different story about where I personally am in this whole thing. I see relatively clearly the challenges facing the church in the UK, and even understand some of the shifts but remain reasonably sceptical that the majority of the church can make the leap, and so you wonder how the future plays out for so many local expressions of the church. And so, one must feel a sense of loss that in spite of the hard work of so many, there is little to do that can halt the decline in some circles because the decline is so huge. In this last week, I sat in the office of a denominational leader who said ‘our denomination has maybe 10 years max’. The writing is on the wall. So, where is the hope?
I read an article a few weeks ago that I didn’t quite know how to internalise. It was about the growth in churches with a more fundamental view of Christian faith. I don’t think by that they meant ultra-shocking in-your-face-offensive Christian outfits….rather, places where there was a commitment to take Jesus at his word and seeking to flesh out his teaching in a committed and intentional way. It wasn’t about style, but about a clear idea of the substance of faith. On one hand, I can see how this is ‘first half of life’ spirituality – people who are building their faith construct still, and who are creating that scaffold of faith. I recognise many formative years of firm discipleship myself. And, I note that it is true…it is those who have built a ‘strong container’ in the first half of life who can then afford to explore the depths and put things IN their container which are fresh, surprising, stretching and of greater depth. More than that, If you have nothing and you deconstruct it you still have nothing. If you have a solid container and you deconstruct it, you still have something to reconstruct…some essential parts that you can build with.
I’ve said many times before, and I don’t hesitate to say it again, but a church that isn’t building on the foundation that is Christ will need more than a supernatural revival to resuscitate it. We need a revolution of saying ‘look, we’re at the crunch point…we can still turn some of this round, and the way to do that is to some how discover what it really means to be a community of disciples of Christ embodying the mission and heart of the Trinity itself.’ I think that to the extent churches can shake of the myriad of agendas it brings to the table to focus on the movement of God in the scripture, in history and in our daily lives will be the extent to which it can reconstruct a new imaginative future for the church in the 21st century. A fresh vision of the nature and heart of God transforms our outlook on pretty much everything. Even so, this may not halt the decline and decay in many places, but it may just allow a phoenix to arise from the ashes.
It was Jesus who said ‘I will build my church’ and so, in some ways, we’re off the hook, but he did also entrust us with making disciples, teaching and instructing other people in the ways of God, and from that, church would come. So, we are not without a job. The question is this: is the job we’re actually engaged in the one we’ve been invited to engage in? Is the main thing the main thing? Are we constructing the future, or are we shifting chairs on the Titanic whilst the band plays ‘Nearer My God to Thee’?