This is a guest post from Graham Goldsmith who is a regular contributor to this site:
Travelling down the M4 last month, there was a real sense of anticipation and excitement. We were on our way to Spring Harvest in Minehead for the third time. Spring Harvest is a weeklong Christian festival aimed at equipping and resourcing the Church. It is an annual ”must do” for many Christians. Around 6-7 thousand people attend each week over a three week period.
The 2012 theme entitled ‘Church Actually’ seemed apt at a time where many feel that the church is in decline, some would say asleep although others think that it is reviving, waking up to the reality and implications of growing secularisation, yet struggling to know what to do about it, looking at how it can meet the challenge of being challenged, yearning for a common and united approach.
Many agree that our culture has fallen out of love with the church, finding it irrelevant and boring, defined by what it is against rather than what it is for. One story stuck in my mind of a young mum driving her son to school, passing a Church the boy asked ”Mummy who is that man hanging up there on that building” she had to confess that she should know but couldn’t remember. Having dropped her son off, she went on to a local mums’ social group. She asked the other mums who the person was hanging on the church wall so that she could tell her son when she got home. There were 25 mums there. How many of them do you think knew it to be Jesus?
If secular atheism is so compelling and satisfying then why do over 60% of people still believe in God or at least a higher being? Why at celebrity funerals do people bring flowers with messages that invoke the angels, joining the stars and a heavenly afterlife? Why is expression of Spirituality in all its diversity on the increase? Where is the church in all this and does this fact represent an opportunity for followers of Jesus?
‘Church Actually’ is a call for positive change, to narrow the sacred-secular divide, a call to have a vision for the broken parts of our society and a mission to be salt and light in our communities. It describes the Church as ”Gods brilliant idea” that God has placed huge potential and power within the church to release light and truth.
THE CHURCH AS THE PEOPLE OF GOD – LET THEM SHINE
On day one we looked at the Church as people rather than buildings; that the best argument for Christianity is Christians. When Christians show joy, completeness, certainty and love then faith lives but if Christians are sombre, smug, self righteous, narrow and repressive then faith dies. Some churches appear more like a dysfunctional family marked out by power struggles and petty squabbles, some are more like private ”feel good” clubs barely engaged with their communities at all.
There were stunning examples of thriving churches. There was a call for more healthy churches; models which could be held up and encouraged. The call was for Christians to help form grace and love communities concerned for the poor and needy (spiritually as well as materially).
Lots of ideas flowed from this. We should be less concerned about numbering converts but rather creating a beautiful vision for our communities, not expecting that our communities should join the church but rather the church should join our communities.
In a nutshell we need to spread the Kingdom rather than the church ”on earth as it is in heaven”. We should embrace whole life discipleship and see our mission field being where so ever we are. We can look to make any situation more Christ like. There is nothing secular that cannot be made sacred. We should all see ourselves as pastoral carers and speakers of truth living by example 24/7 rather than 1/1 Sunday. We bring God’s Kingdom wherever we are. Our calling has the potential to make an impact in business, government, media, arts, entertainment, leisure and family depending on our situation either as an individual witness or as part of a group. If we have 100 people in our church, that represents a potential influence on hundreds of different settings in any given week.
If we are to shine as Christians we need to be encouragers in the church setting, listening to one another and the Holy Spirit, deploying our gifts, releasing imagination so that the myriad fresh expressions of church can make us interesting and relevant, drawing us closer to those outside the church walls. It’s not a case of whether we chose to just breathe in or breathe out, in truth the work is both in our churches and out there.
These are laudable aspirations that represent a vision for the future but when only one mum out of 25 knew that the man hanging on the wall was Jesus one realises after the initial shock, the depressing enormity of the task. We can point to and blame religious illiteracy, exaggerated Christian caricatures and stereotypes, hostile secularising legislation, atheist humanist ideology and material consumerism but are these the only factors? How on earth did we get to this point where we are deemed either irrelevant or the object of low level prejudice and marginalisation, have we as a church been the spiritual equivalent of Rip Van Winkle seeing the speck in the eye of others without noticing the plank in our own?
In political terms David Cameron wants us to engage in the Big Society initiative but most at Spring harvest found that rather ironic. Christians have always played a big part in community initiatives but he is right in that there is so much more to be done.
By the very fact of living in the U.K. we enjoy being in the top 3% of wealthy people on the planet. But many believe we suffer chronically as a society from spiritual poverty to which we cannot apply the word ‘enjoy’ and to which as Christians we need to apply ourselves and make a difference.
We need as individual Christians the freedom within society to shine, to feel confident that we can talk about and express our faith in public and in the workplace and this has to be addressed at the political, individual and cultural level too.
This is not so much power for ourselves but rather the opportunity to grow to serve others, for “The harvest is great but the workers are few.” (Matthew 9:36-38)
Perhaps too we need to be less inhibited in the task. Jesus warned it would not be easy. We need courage and a culture of mutual support and encouragement for ideas and mission within the church that will counterbalance any negative reaction we may experience outside of it. We’ve been woken up with a few sharp prods of a very secular stick of late. So what does Rip Van Winkle do now? If we are to awake how do we go about the task?
Do we shine? Can we shine?
Just remember this: “If God is for us, who can be against us.” (Romans 8:31). The only thing that can hold us back is ourselves.