Rich Tweedy asks what time it is.
Pioneer ministers are restless people.
There's a driving sense of urgency that we need radical ways of doing and being church – and that if we miss the immediacy of this challenge, the church will die. At the same time there's a frustration that other people just aren't getting it. I've learned that one of the first tasks of pioneers, therefore, is to enable others to see the urgency in such a way as to recognise how to respond to it.
I'm working as a curate in a group of churches in rural west Worcestershire, which is led by the effervescent David Sherwin. It is growing a remarkable blend of both traditional and radical forms of church. We face similar issues to many rural churches: traditional Sunday services attracting 10 people, mostly aged over 60, where three decades ago there would have been 40 people of all ages.
It's not hard for a traditional church stalwart to see that there's a problem here. The issue is to understand why it has occurred – and only then can new forms of church be considered. For this, it is important to explain what time it is. I have had to go on a 'journey' myself in order to be able to recognise and answer that question.
I originally trained as an astronomer. Thus, when some years later I joined a large and inspirational New Wine church in Cheltenham, I was perplexed by one recurring theme: that we live in a post-modern culture and need to engage with it. My science training makes me realise there are certain incontrovertible facts: the earth goes round the Sun, the speed of light is constant, entropy always increases; I'm therefore not very receptive to post-modern denials of objective reality. However, there came a point when I realised that it doesn't matter what I think of the philosophy itself, the fact is that the culture has changed from the one I was trained in, and 'post-modern' is a meaningful and accurate description of this new culture.
I then realised that if the gospel is to be communicated in the 21st century, it has to be done in ways that are meaningful to people living in a post-modern world – not in ways that I personally feel more comfortable with.
This journey helps me to couch the urgency of the present in terms that regular churchgoers seem to find helpful. I find myself saying, 'You and I were born and brought up in the modern era, within Christendom. However, we now live in a very different world, which is post-modern and post-Christendom. Therefore, what worked 30 years ago doesn't work now. This isn't your fault: it's a symptom of the culture around us changing so rapidly.'
Pioneer ministers will know that the post-modern world opens new opportunities; we recognise that people are keen for authenticity; more open to spirituality, and desire genuine relationships. Thus our job is to enable established churchgoers to recognise and embrace these opportunities. Explaining the obvious problem of declining congregations in terms of the cultural changes points the way to how a fresh expression of church might be an effective response – and this means more people buy into the vision.
In west Worcestershire we've therefore had some success with a Sunday morning café church in two of the villages because it's high on relationship and low on religious structure. It's vital that it's welcoming to those who would rarely step inside a church and that it's family-friendly – but it's also an opportunity for elderly stalwarts to get out of the house, meet people and have a chat. It's still early days and we're constantly learning and growing but it is an exciting journey to be on.
- Some readers may recognise 'what time is it?' as one of the worldview questions advocated by NT Wright in books like The New Testament and the People of God. The other questions are 'Who are we?', 'Where are we?', 'What's the problem?' and 'What's the solution?' Each of these might usefully be asked in most church contexts.