Someone asked me the other day ‘what’s the worst thing about being in church leadership?’ I answered the question wrongly, because, not wanting to get too deep on the matter, I glibly said ‘meetings that don’t go anywhere and are for apparently nothing.’ Whilst that’s a waste of time, it’s not the real answer I’d offer to that question.
It just so happens that someone asked me the same question again yesterday, as if I were being invited to speak the truth about what I really see and feel, not only in my local settings, but in other places.
Across the board, the crisis in churches is basic discipleship. Sure, it is at different levels of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ in different places, but I recognise that even in the most active church, I’ve always been troubled by it. I don’t understand it. And when I say that, I don’t mean that I’m ignorant of the reasons as to why discipleship is low on the agenda or why it is not the active experience of people. I know most of the reasons.
I also know that it is no easy thing to follow Jesus. It is no easy think to cultivate a life of prayer, witness and service. It is no easy thing to factor in commitment Christian community (not necessarily institutional stuff, but vital faith/life stuff). And as for engagement in mission…bottom of the heap, really. And so, I reflect that for many years I’ve been doing all I can in my power/influence to invite people into active discipleship. Some you win, some you lose.
But, if it was important when I started out in ministry in the early 2000s, it is crucial now. I would love to be SPECTACULARLY proved wrong with the real evidence that people are praying, learning about Jesus and following him, living rhythms of daily worship and devotion and engaging in creative and intentional mission in their settings in everyday life. I suspect, however, that it is not the case in the vast majority of cases.
And so, as a pastor/leader/minister/whateveryouwanttocallme, the challenge is either to present low challenge/low risk chaplaincy in the hope that some ‘get it’ or, to raise the bar and call for deeper levels of commitment and engagement in the things of God. Leaving aside the ‘professional role’, my choice is to plough my own discipleship furrow, or to really engage at a level of challenge to my fellow Christians and invite them to step up. This involves levels or discomfort and maybe even awkwardness that not everyone is prepared for…I’m not sure if my propensity towards and ‘easy life’ even always allows me to get there!
But what is the flip side if we don’t? People say ‘well, Jesus says that the gates of Hell won’t prevail against the church’ and that is true. He does say that. But let’s place that alongside history: there are parts of the world where Christianity once bloomed and flourished (places like Ephesus, for example) but which are now desert lands when it comes to the church. There are no guarantees that ‘Christianity in [insert your location]’ will stay afloat at all, even if it does in other places. The gospel won’t be without witness in the world…but where we live? Well that’s maybe very much in our court. People say we need a revival as if this is all God’s fault! I fully agree we need a revival – but I don’t think its going to be the kind where God zaps everyone whilst we stand back. And I don’t think its going to be in the shape of filling the pews and singing lovely songs to Jesus. We need a revival of connected and committed relationship that is fleshed out in everyday life, not just on a month of Sundays.
It is not even about ‘passing faith on’ down the generations any more. That can happen in some places, but many situations are long devoid of any generations to pass faith onto. If we do have that luxury, we then have to assume that parents/grandparents/guardians are equipped to be able to do that work and in many cases they’re not and so the church has to ‘buy in’ expertise.
What’s the good news in this? It is never too late to hear the challenge and start making the difference today. If you’re still reading stuff like this, still engaging yourself, now is the time to participate in waking up the rest of the body of Christ! If you’re still engaged with a group of people calling themselves church it is time to ‘have a word’ somewhere. The time is now.