Stephen Lindridge, Fresh Expressions Connexional Missioner for the Methodist Church, asks whether church is a relic of the past or renewal for the future.
What do we really mean by church? Is it something with a spire or a tower or a font – a place for those all-important hatches, matches and dispatches of baptisms, weddings and funerals? I recently came across two very different interpretations.
A snowy day in Newcastle and I was teaching on the Fresh Expressions mission shaped ministry course where we were looking at 'what is Church?' Cue 20 Christians, from differing backgrounds and traditions, getting very excited about the nature and relationships that form the backdrop to this word church.
Twenty four hours later and a BBC news report from the Middlesbrough area told of how a 900-year-old church building – once vandalized and almost destroyed – had been moved brick by brick and rebuilt in the Beamish Museum, adding to their 'growing collection of historic buildings of the past'.
I must admit to feeling demoralised to hear, in this news bulletin at least, that 'church' very much equals 'building'; all the more so as I had witnessed something very different in the name of church just a day earlier. This was compounded by the fact that, for years, I have taught passionately that church – in its essence – is made up of three things:
- people – important because 'we don't do it on our own';
- focused on God – the Divine Trinity;
- purpose – a rhythm of mission and worship.
As a result, two things struck me as if for the first time:
- our western culture has placed its own meaning and understanding on the word church;
- the meaning of that word can be understood in a positive or negative way and that understanding has a profound impact on those seeking to engage in relevant mission with contemporary society.
Church is a place where people gather to help each other learn more about living their lives like Jesus. They pray, worship, share, care and encourage one-another in their respective outward mission. Living everyday life in a way that more people would come to know the remarkable and transforming love of God in Christ.
This is something that certainly came true for Matt, who attends the Café Lite fresh expression of church in Droxford village hall, Hampshire. He says,
I have spent many adult years in prison and a lot of years on class A drugs but I have been clean for a year in recovery. I go to Café Lite because I find it an enjoyable time which helps me interact with people I don't usually interact with. I find it inspiring; people are so happy there and show me that a clean life is possible.
There are countless others with similar transformational stories, including Star – baptised and confirmed at the Upper Room community, Cirencester:
I can't connect easily with people in church; there's no space. Here there is space to be real, and to pour your heart out if you need to. It feels like home. It's a place that brings church and community together.
Linda of New Song Network, Warrington, adds,
New Song is my oasis. It is my time to worship God in a way that draws me closer. It's the natural, relaxed, non-threatening, welcoming, Jesus-filled night of my month and it has helped me to deepen my faith and serve others.
These fresh expressions of church often find homes in cafés, pubs, schools or in the workplace. Some meet in traditional church buildings but most do not resemble what would have been familiar to the Beamish museum piece of a church – though they are, most definitely, church.
A great deal of research has gone into why nearly all the main denominations in Britain are declining rapidly and have been for the last 60 years. The research has given us a new piece of jargon, 'the de-churched' – people who once went to church but don't go any more. Some have left for inert reasons; moving job or home and getting out of the habit of going or not having time to find a new church in a busy life, etc.
However more than 50% of those researched all left for very negative reasons, from the trivial – a disagreement over what colour the woodwork was to be repainted – I kid you not – to the very serious in nature. This may have involved hurt and fall-out from the classic sins around money, sex and power. These abuses, in all their forms, irrevocably damage peoples' relationships with each other and consequently, often their faith in God.
Between these positive and negative ends of the spectrum are the very reasonable responses that the church leadership or the loudest voices will not respond to the growing needs of our time and change to meet such needs. Therefore people leave to find a community of Christians which is looking to do what it says on the tin, namely 'make disciples of Christ' instead of 'this pleases us, therefore it stays as it is'.
Bishop Graham Cray, leader of the Fresh Expressions team, often quotes an Australian bishop who says, 'more of the same means less of the same'. So why is that?
Jesus said he would build his church and, in the Acts of the Apostles (2:47), we read – as those first believers started to gather in Resurrection hope and the Spirit's power – that it was God who added to their number daily. Many would ask, then why isn't God growing his church today? Well, some would say that he is. Newer churches in Britain are experiencing that growth in size with the worldwide church in Africa, South America and Asia seeing amazing things as God helps them to draw many people into faith.
It's not a picture that could be used to describe many Methodist or Anglican churches in Britain. Surely it can't be that they are such bad wicked places, full of judgement and holier-than-thou attitudes? Speaking as someone who has visited more than their fair share of churches down the years, no they are not bad. On the whole they are full of lovely, well-meaning people who are doing the best with what they have been brought up to believe that church is what you do on Sunday to help you through the week.
We've all heard of that weekly pattern which, in some cases, is generations old. It's along the lines of, 'Turn up, sing up, pay up, shut up (during the sermon) and go home, knowing only a handful of names of the people sitting anywhere near you'.
The New Testament view seems a little different.
Consider for a moment the picture in Acts. We see on many occasions the community of believers responding to those who are in need. How did they know they were in need? Maybe those in need asked for help? The broader picture shows that the believers were all together and devoted to specific things, like 'the fellowship'.
This 'fellowship' is much stronger a word than the one we tend to bandy around when describing a general gathering at church, such as 'the men's or women's fellowship'. This is a word which many seem like a stranger in our culture; the word embodies commitment.
These earlier disciples were so committed to each other that they would give up 'stuff' and sell it to help the next person. They wanted to meet with each other on a daily basis; sharing food, praying together and learning more about Jesus.
These days, when we go somewhere different and try to establish new relationships, meeting people over food is still one of the best ways to get to know one another. Breaking down the barriers and getting to know more than someone's name is a basic human social skill in forming rich community – the sort of community that's a good place in which we can thrive.
If we proclaim the message, 'we are made in God’s image', the very essence of that is community. The Godhead three in one and one in three, the blessed Trinity is the source of relationship, love and community; we are made as social beings to dwell in community.
The sad reality is many people may be part of a crowd but no one knows their name or misses them if they disappear from sight. How many so-called 'churches' are like this? We go in anonymous to most of the others present and come out as unknown as we went in. The pains or joys of the past or coming week are untouched, not shared or prayed for by the wider group gathered on Sundays.
Ask yourself, how many people do you know by name at your church? How many don't you know? If we are not aware of people's names how are we going to pretend that we are building community?
Why does that matter? Look to verse 47 of Acts Chapter 2 for an answer.
Daily God added to their number… those who were being saved
Who added? Peter's preaching? The kindness of the disciples? Their organizational skills? No! The Lord added. We have preached and teached for hundreds of years that faith is God's gift to give by grace.
How can we envisage God gifting anyone new to faith into a place were they cannot grow and be nurtured into maturity? Here are four things that are key for the healthy, whole life of the community of believers – and newcomers to that community:
- learning practically about Jesus and all he taught, in ways that are relevant in today's cultures;
- being part of a nurturing community that is committed enough to know so much more than your name. A place to be part of and contribute to;
- eating together, share meals regularly, build the opportunities for deepening discipleship, the substance for encouraging a rhythm of mission and worship;
- praying together, cutting through all difference and minister to each other, the source of equipping for daily life.
Why are we in decline? Is it because most of the things we call church are not church at all? Over the years the building has taken on a name but the values that earn the title are sadly missing.
Why did 59% of the British population self-select Christian in the recent census yet less than 8% regular attend (at least monthly) something called church? Is it the 51% don't find what they are looking for?
What a task is before us. We need to encourage the church to be the church – not just in name (i.e. the gathered) but also in values, vision and purpose. Imagine…what if church existed in a 1000 more varieties than it currently does? What if we could find ways of creating the kind of communities in which those who called themselves Christian in the census would want to belong to and be an active, committed participant of? What if these communities of all sizes start doing the Acts stuff because they know and care for those about them? What if that really makes a difference and provides the Lord with a place to plant new believers?
Will that mean the word 'church' starts to signify something a little different than a building in a museum?