The core question lying behind so much of what we as church leaders from right across the West find ourselves talking about is what ‘Church’ means. We are fixated with questions about what shape it should have, what organisational structure, what core values or what direction it should take. That’s why we read so many books on emerging church, deep church, liquid church, cell church, café church, messy church, healthy church, simple church, organic church, purpose-driven church, seeker-friendly church, vertical church or provocative church. We are desperate to find the answer to the question, “What kind of church is best?”
And the reason we are asking this question again and again is that we somehow know, deep in our bones, that something is wrong in the way are currently ‘doing’ church. Whichever tradition we are coming from, whichever stream, whichever background, all of us seem to be asking the same thing. Is this it? Is this really all there is to it? Is this really ‘authentic church life’?
For most of us the answer is so obvious we have given up even asking it. We knew years ago that the way we were doing church was done for, that it was on the way out, that it was dead, and so we joined in with others asking the same questions, prompted by the same uneasiness and dissatisfaction looking for a new way to do things, organise things, structure things. Out of this came all kinds of experiments and movements and services and expressions – all initiated by radicals who were willing to try a new thing even if this meant that they had to leave the established form of church behind. Others, no less frustrated or determined, chose to remain within the larger established structures but instead began to conspire with other subversives about how to change things from the inside. Others, many others, just gave up trying and left.
However, no matter which direction we have taken, whether we have stayed behind or jumped ship, it seems that we all are now arriving at a point of convergence. No matter whichever place we started there is almost universal acceptance of the ‘need to change’.
Knowing you need to change, however, is not the same thing as knowing what to change or how to change. And it is here that the conversation takes us. If our churches are currently perfectly suited to getting the results we are currently achieving and yet we agree that we want to get different results, we know that the only option open to us is to actually change something. But the question is what?
On reflection it is apparent that we have tried a few alternatives.
One thing we tried has been to change our worship services. This has meant updating the music, including the children, making them more reflective, making them more youthful, switching off the lights, switching on the lights, turning up the music, turning off the music, making things messy, tidying things up, using videos, or drama, or dance, or tongues, or whatever. We have taken out the chairs or replaced the pews with chairs, we have waited for the Spirit and commanded a blessing, we have embraced the silence and let the music fade, we have lit candles, dropped stones, and filled walls with prayers. All of this good, creative, new, fresh, alive. You can’t say that we haven’t been creative with our worship services. We have become more Charismatic, more Catholic, more Celtic, more contemporary, but for all this renewal, for all our relevance, our longing for more remains.
Another thing we have tried is improving our image. We have become more accepting, welcoming, loving, and forgiving, and less condemning, less frightening. We have taken out the offensive or difficult things from our theology – or at least focussed less on them. We have embraced the message that God really is love and we have embraced the outsider. We have rejected the label which once fitted so well – judgemental. We have become tolerant and accepting. We talk about life, not hell, love not judgement, forgiveness not sin.
All this has been a good corrective but once again, though important and good, it has not been enough.
Another thing we have tried is getting involved in social action and community issues. Recognising that God loves the poor and that Jesus was more radical than Che Guevara we have rediscovered our compassion. We have marched for justice and to end poverty, campaigned for freedom and set up countless projects serving and loving the poor. We left the church buildings and moved into the neighbourhood. And it has been hard. Some of us have been burnt out, others have survived – but either way we still long for more.
And then we have improved our presentations, developed our websites, embraced new technology. We have tried new ways of communicating trying out up to date theories of the best way to teach. We have shortened the sermon or beefed it up and used videos and clips and stories. We make people laugh and make people cry. We call them into action and repentance and commitment. We have become more relevant, intelligent, persuasive.
And once again it has all been good, vital even. We know we live in TV/iPad world and we have become so much better at communicating our message. But despite all this we still long for more.
And then there have been other approaches. Rejecting the inherent consumerism of our day some brave believers have taken the scriptures seriously and revisited the theme of community, rejecting large programme driven church for smaller scale intentional community. Radical communities where church is more about belonging than attending have tried to redraw the shape of church life and have brought a prophetic message to the wider body.
Once again this has been welcome and is a great thing, but once again, we have found we are longing for more. We may find ourselves in a wonderfully tightknit community of faith where we are shaped by the rhythms of a deep spirituality, where relationships stand the length of time and where we live simply so that others simply live, and yet we wonder if there is more. How come others don’t join in? How come we always feel on the edge? How come we never grow?
We have tried it all – new forms of community, new forms of mission, new forms of worship. How come we still feel we are getting it wrong? How come we still wonder if there is a better model out there? How come revival seems so far off?
More recently, however, some clever people have noticed something that might help us. Once you’re told it, it seems obvious and you wonder why you didn’t notice it before. And it is this. The reason church no longer works the way it used to, or even when we try new variations of it, is primarily because people have changed in the way they think, act, connect and belong.
Take political parties. A few decades ago many millions of us belonged to political parties, got involved in local and national politics, marched, campaigned, wrote letters. Today the membership has shrunk to an all-time low. People just won’t get involved like they used to.
Take membership to societies, clubs, guilds. A few decades ago you could still enter a town and find a whole array of community groups, sports clubs and voluntary groups alive and well doing the thing that they enjoyed doing most. And people volunteered to be treasurer, chairman or secretary without difficulty. Today the numbers of clubs, organisations and groups have shrunk to an all-time low, and those that still exist are running on an ever decreasing, over stretched core. People just won’t get involved like they used to.
And of course it’s exactly the same for the local church. Churches still exist, but the way people belong to them has completely changed. Recruiting volunteers to run Sunday school or youth work or help with services seems harder than ever. Organising church-wide events often seems an uphill struggle. People just don’t get involved like they used to.
The church is declining not just because people have lost faith. The church is declining because the way people relate, belong, think and act has changed. And it is this change that means that community groups, political parties and sports clubs find themselves struggling for committed members too. We have changed. We don’t get our identity from these groups any more.
There is much to say about such a shift, but perhaps this is the most important of them all. Despite the fact that people don’t commit themselves to organisations, parties or groups any more they do commit themselves to causes, ideals and visions. And once they have a cause they will sacrifice their time, money and effort for it, as long as it doesn’t become an organisation or institution.
Now if it is true that people don’t join institutions or organisations but they do sign up to causes then perhaps there is life in the old church yet, as long as church gathers people around a cause. Don’t invite them to join in the organisation, get them to share the same cause and purpose.
With this in mind, if we are to have a future, we will increasingly need to highlight and articulate the cause that lies at the heart of things. And we will need to do this repeatedly and convincingly so that again and again, normal and sensible people decide to sacrifice everything for the cause that has taken hold of them.
Biblical, or Christian terms, for ‘sacrificing everything for the cause’ are words such as ‘repent’ and ‘believe’ and these are the words Jesus used when he invited people to join in his cause. His cause was simply stated. It was to announce the arrival of Kingdom of God and to invite people to live their lives in under God’s rule as disciples of Jesus. And the prize, the reward and the incentive for sacrificing everything for this cause, was what Jesus called LIFE – life in all its fullness, the life of the world to come which nothing could destroy. Give up everything for this cause and you are promised life. Loose everything for it and you will gain everything. Leave everything behind for it and you will find everything you longed for. Die and you will live.
This is what we need in the church. Alongside all the other renewals and reformations we need a deeper understanding and vision of the cause which we have been given. As we know, right at the end of his time on earth, after his resurrection but before his ascension, Jesus commissioned his disciples with one central task – to make disciples and to teach them everything he had taught them about the kingdom of God.
This is our task. This is our central cause. It is to announce the promise of the Kingdom, to avail it to people, to make it accessible and to invite them into it. And it is to entice them into Christian discipleship for the sake of finding life. Everything we do must find it’s place subservient to this cause. This must become our rallying cry and our number one passion. To make disciples through the announcement of the gospel of the Kingdom. This is our mission. This is our cause. This is what the church exists for. Indeed this is what will make the church. We go and make disciples. Jesus will build his church.
One last thing. Given that the cause is to make disciples, we must recognise that it is only possible to do this as a community, as a church. We must remember that the cause of Jesus can only be articulated through a community of people who live out this cause together not simply through the lives of individual Christians. Church is fundamental for the gospel to take root. As Jesus prayed just before he was crucified, the world will only truly respond to the truth of the gospel when groups of people embody this truth in their community life and behaviour together – when they are one, when they are as united with each other as Jesus was united to his Father.
This is our cause. We can’t do it alone. We need each other. Announcing the Kingdom and making disciples.