Has the Church fallen asleep on its feet?

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.

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Categories: Church, David Cameron, Faith in society

Tags: , , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. Excellent article. We were also at Spring Harvest (sadly only for two days) and even in that short time we found it inspirational and thought-provoking. Jesus didn’t concentrate his time and effort on bringing people into a “place of worship” he went out to the people and taught them to worship where they were. We need to stop counting congregations and get out into the community – working for them where they need us the most.

  2. I think people want to believe there is something more when their loved ones die – thus the flowers and messages at funerals, not just funerals of famous people, that invoke the angels, joining the stars and a heavenly afterlife?

    Not you asked the question,” Why is expression of Spirituality in all its diversity on the increase?” This can be seen as an individualist rather than group effort. In many cases there is no absolute hierarchy of gender or defined dogma in much Spiritualism. This is something that the Catholic and Evangelical churches live by, and many see this as an irrelevance or a power status for the male. Nice service shame about the power structure. I’m not saying if this was not so more women at least would be flocking to the churches, just pointing out a secular indifference to certain church creeds and dogmas; it is seen as twee or totally irrelevant.

    You ask, “Where is the church in all this and does this fact represent an opportunity for followers of Jesus?” A nation that has lost its Christian heritage needs to build up that heritage from a position of disarmament. Not attack the others for opposing Christian doctrine but show how Christ lived through the actions of Christian individuals and communities. Churches are not seen by the secular world as ‘communities’ but people who think they are so right about everything and better than others. Of course this may not be true in most cases but…In order to bring Christian concepts back into Britain then it has to be Christ centred concepts. Not being separate and aloof but being part of and not of the secular country.

    Christians, minimalist or not, should practice the notion of the Sabbath and Christmas and Easter. Not through the lens of total consumerism but through the lens of how Jesus approached people. Of course it is not the same in this culture as it was in the Hebrew/Greek/Roman time. More leisure for the masses which means more technological distractions. The way one does church becomes the message of the church.

    • More excellent thought provoking points as usual! Thank you.

      I always think that there is a paradox that although churches are dominated by male leadership, the majority of those who go to church are women. Many men find church too feminine.

      I also notice that many Christians, including myself at times, are very sloppy about keeping the sabbath. We’ve lost the notion of keeping it a holy day set apart for God. As you say, “The way one does church becomes the message of the church”. Do we need to be making more of an effort to be noticably different? I have this strong feeling that the answer is “Yes”.

  3. Thanks Graham et al, for this encouraging news and commendable comments, and ‘yes’ to Gillan. The church asleep on its feet? Maybe more like sleep-walking in the wrong direction as it seems to have forgotten the way? Others have seen it as a sleeping giant about to wake, rise up and stand!

    We know Jesus is ‘The way , the truth and the life’. Early disciples followed ‘The Way’ (Acts 18,22 & 24) and in Antioch were first called ‘little Christs’, or Christians, because they were anointed by Holy Spirit and thereby empowered to do what Jesus did.

    So I submit that more than Graham’s excellent precis points is necessary – we need some’ spit and polish’ to shine! And shine with what? The glory of God. This morning I looked at Isaiah 60’s oft-quoted opening verses on this. Then I noticed its full sense flows straight into the verses Jesus quoted from chapter 61’s opening to describe his ministry: “The Spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me…”.

    I believe and have seen that for believers to shine fully we are to be in the Lord’s tangible presence. Therein, His holiness brings repentance of our sins and we get filled with holy fire. Only then will others see Him in us AND want to know Him. All else is subsidiary or irrelevant.

    But how much do leaders and laity really want this? How many will lay down their service schedules and ritual to permit Holy Spirit to attend church? And then permit time to let Him have His way? I hope the number who will do so is increasing…encouraging words through modern-day prophets indicate this will happen.

    It is implicit that when this happens, the full Gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ through his cross and blood is preached in its original, holy purity without any compromise being made for cultural clutter. The line between Kingdom and world must be kept clear. Only then do signs and wonders follow. And only then are sinners attracted, convicted of the need to repent and come into the wholeness of salvation – which is already happening in many parts of the world, even here and in USA!

    So, don’t let’s do it our way but the way He did it!

    • Very true Richard! I am recently impacted by “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”. We all know it so well, but the word we miss out on is “come”. When Jesus said “The Kingdom is at hand”, it was exactly that, and by the merit of no-one. It is a natural temptation to look to ourselves and churches to begin building the Kingdom, with the best of intentions, but we have a rightly jealous God Who knows that it can only come utterly and completely from Him. He is not going to add His bricks to bricks of our own building, which He knows are going to fail in true Kingdom terms.

      The latter half of what you say is endorsed in history by what God did in the great Welsh revival of 1904-5. The people who walked in darkness did see a great light (Is 9:2). It was a fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy “God’s Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness…. (Luke 1:78-9 Message). His Kingdom came, across many parts of Wales. So strong was the presence of His holiness, that whole towns were affected, as believers and non-believers alike found themselves taken by surprise and swept into the Kingdom, not only in the church meetings, but down in the mines and out on the streets, where people would cry our for mercy and forgiveness. The meetings themselves were given over to the leadings of the Holy Spirit without preparation. (The leaders planned only the venues.) Crime in the areas fell dramatically, beer sales slumped and swearing virtually ceased. Furthermore the fires that were lit throughout Wales disseminated around the world with extraordinary speed and lasting results – really good news travels fast! Inevitably, there was also resistance, most hurtfully from within those churches that favoured the status quo, to which many wished to return.

      We cannot turn the clock back. Civilization has changed, but God has not. I fervently believe that of the many movements that claim revival, what took place here in Wales remains particularly precious to God’s heart, simply because it was based on repentance, above all else. It surely serves as a pointer to where He can be found again, in all His fullness.

      • Thanks Richard for a most pleasant surprise upon return from holiday, especially as I’d only hastily penned it during urgent roof-repair on top of hol preparations. (In wanting to have addressed other breaking news I found what came out summarises my reaction to the ongoing ‘mess’ and plea to look to the true answer to all those issues.)

        I particularly appreciate your continuing my longstanding but unwritten thoughts on the prayer Jesus taught and fully agree with your comments. (In fact, could have done with your details on Wales when debating on echurch blog last year – no doubt you know of God’s work at Ffald-y-Brenin?) Perhaps when the church awakes we may be looking at the outworking of His eschatological purposes?

        • Welcome home Richard!
          It is always exciting when we see that the answers to our own and the churches’ problems are upstream of our own thinking and pre-conceptions. That vital ingredient, which the Bible defines as Life, can only come as a pure gift from above! When it comes, everything changes forever.
          Yes, I do know of the stirrings in Ffald-y-Brenin towards Revival and we have many movings along the coast in North Wales too. Some of us are immersed in it here! I have a travelling PowerPoint presentation “The Great Welsh Revival”, which moves hearts wherever it goes, among Christians and non-believers alike. Those who do not know what God has done in the past lack expectation of what He can do again. And we believe with a passion that He will!

  4. Good to have you back Richard. Hoping you had an enjoyable holiday.

  5. Thanks Gillan and guess you may know from my postings something of what happened.

    Richard, I’d be interested to learn about details of what’s happening in N Wales. Last weekend in Windsor a Richard from Wrexham mentioned it, as had a Dorset friend after an April trip to Prestatyn. If one’s available perhaps you could provide a link here?

    • Sorry to delay on this, since we have just returned from Israel. We do not have a website for Towards Revival, but apart from the work that we do, there are a number of groups in North Wales, particularly along the coast, with hearts for revival.

      • Many thanks Richard and trust you had a most blessed time there. As I update church friends on events by email, fairly soon I’d like to make a mention along the preceding lines – and maybe include on my blog.

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