Sunday, 22 July 2012

Abiding in Hope

I've noticed a lot of articles (blogs and media) lately suggesting that the church is dying. The authors of these pieces are hand-wringing over the fact that there aren't enough resources to keep things going, bemoaning the fact that churches are getting caught up into 'management-speak' and chastising these churches for losing sight of gospel values. Yet death is perhaps the least surprising concept to apply to the church which, in theological terms, is the body of Christ - Christ who died and who rose again. It's certainly true that churches (individual congregations and whole denominations) do struggle and wither and die out or, more prosaically, get to the point of closure. But it's also true that, while some get weaker and die, others blossom and flourish for a season. It is also true that where a church loses its vibrant, lively faith in the gospel, it is indeed as though the body is dying and being buried, but often, from that body, there comes a new shoot bearing fruit in the shape of individual Christians who have 'caught' the faith in that original fellowship and gone on to live it out in other Christian communities.

When I look around me at the churches of this area and indeed in the city where I used to minister, I see two things. I see the 'death' of shrinking numbers and wearied congregations but I also see the renewal of fresh lives changed by meeting Christ and tired lives brought to a place of re-invigorated engagement through exploring with new communities of faith and fresh opportunities for worship. Christian communities are being re-shaped and transformed at the present moment. In the West, they are much smaller than they were but they are also much more open to exploring what discipleship is. Church-going is no longer synonymous with practice of the faith - there are many unconventional, non-denominational and experimental groups outside or on the fringes of the old established denominations that are returning to the roots of the faith. They meet quietly or noisily in public places or each others' homes, members are often few in number and they break up again to reform in new groups to accommodate new members. They often have questions about leadership and the place of the sacraments. Remind you of anything? This shape of church is surely much more like the shape of the churches we meet in the New Testament and for the first three centuries in the history of Christianity.

I'm not sure that 'Christian' and 'large', or 'Christ-shaped' and 'powerfully influential'  are pairs of words that go together well. Resources have often been meagre - at the start of the church's history, at times of persecution and at times before major spiritual awakenings. Size and the sharing of clergy, money and buildings are very human preoccupations. We all worry about our responsibilities and none more so than an archdeacon, I suspect! A more theologically significant question to ask is 'where is
this apparent lack of resources pointing us?'  When churches struggle and need pruning and show signs of dying, there is always, in my experience, new growth in the off-ing. It might be in the very community where there is death - people of faith begin to emerge in other ways in the life of the community. Small groups of believers are suddenly released to focus on what is important and to re-invest their energy. Or it may be that, where whole areas or denominations begin to struggle, new life is found in radically different communities of faith. I do know that where churches are growing, it is almost always true that discipleship is taken very seriously; this happens in all sorts of different ways in different contexts, but attention to the disciplines of faith and, above all, devotion to the person of Christ are essential, whether this is expressed through worship and prayer, teaching, service, fellowship, generosity or usually a combination. 

So I don't share the despair of some. The Johannine sayings of Jesus about abiding in Him, Jesus' metaphors of pruning and the parables about death for the sake of new life give me hope that what we are seeing are the birth pangs (Romans 8) of a, yes maybe smaller, but more deeply rooted Christian community in Europe. Perhaps a more honest and humble community of faith full of people who are determined to worship and witness and serve without huge resources but in the power of God's Spirit. Scarey, yes, but certainly grounds for hope.                    


  1. Archdeacon Janet - a somewhat tangential response

  2. Thank you, this encourages hope in a time of trouble.