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I had a strange experience recently. I was at a weekend retreat in the Wiltshire countryside with some of the leadership team of my church. At lunchtime on Saturday a few of us ventured to the supermarket in the nearest town to buy food. As we walked up to the doors of the shop, we noticed a few people standing outside the building with a banner announcing Saint Luke's Church. Thinking that this was part of the church's mission to the local community, we decided to stop for a chat and to offer some encouragement. Incredibly,
though, as we approached, a man in clerical dress started shaking a collection tin in our faces. He was, it seems, of the belief that we (and, presumably, the rest of those out shopping for groceries) should make a donation to Saint Luke's organ refurbishment fund. We stopped and talked, but however hard we tried to change the conversation, they were only interested in discussing keyboards, pedals and pipes. As we wandered off
I was overcome by the sad realisation that the only message the shoppers heard from the church that day was, 'We're broke.
Please save us!'
This story is a modern-day parable. I can almost hear it --- told with style --- on the lips of Jesus. It triggers me to consider again the purpose of the church. Have we concentrated our efforts in the right place? Are we trying so hard to save ourselves that we've forgotten what we are really here to do? Who are we?
Why do we exist? How do we develop an intelligent response to the communities in which we find ourselves living?
Intelligent churches in the twenty-first century will take many different forms, but window dressing is not our concern here. Rather, the task ahead is to nail down what it means to be church --- to discern what core values, principles, and theology should be the hallmarks of our churches. We will determine not what shape churches should take as much as from what substance they should be formed.
A former archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, prophetically warned, 'If a man's concept of God is at error, the more fundamentally committed he is to it, the more damage he will do.' With that in mind, we need to consider again the way in which we approach the task of being church by reflecting on who God is. What we believe about God fundamentally shapes our view of the church, and that, in turn, determines how we live out its mission. Our behaviour, both personally and communally,
is simply an outworking of our beliefs.
It is critical that our generation redefine what the church has to say to the world, engaging with and critiquing our culture as many of the generations before us have engaged with theirs.
But we will not recapture the success of the church of ages past simply by replicating their methods or even, to an extent,
their message. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously stated, 'Eternal truths will neither be true nor eternal unless they have fresh meaning for every new social situation.' We need an intelligent response to our society --- by which I do not mean cerebral or intellectual, but rather wise, relevant, and authentic. We need churches that make sense of both the Bible and of conventional wisdom. We need Chris tians who know theology, culture, and the application of one to the other.
state of the church
At present it seems that no matter how you look at the situation of the church, something has gone wrong. The signs are not good. Every few months or so, the people who are interested in counting, calculating and forecasting confront us with a new bundle of depressing statistics about the church in the West. Church attendance figures, they tell us, are tumbling.
Although by no means uniform across the denominations or the nations, the statistics for the Western church as a whole look, at best, grim.
Looking farther afield than the United Kingdom, it would be easy to conclude that matters are much better. The church in the United States is, on one level, thriving. The United States is home to some of the most enormous and influential churches on earth --- some attracting tens of thousands of people each week. However, an increasing number of churches are finding their pews or chairs emptier with each passing Sunday.
While speaking at a conference run by the Southern Baptist denomination, addressing the nation's church planters, I congratulated them on their astonishing success. However, when I
went out for a meal with a group of their national leaders, I was told that half of their churches had far fewer in their congregations than I had assumed. The average size of a Southern Baptist church, they informed me, was under fifty members --- a marked decline when compared to the situation just a few years earlier.
The symptoms of the fall of Christendom are, it seems, creeping up on the United States too. Though the media is keen to point to the power of America's religious right, a walk through most of the country's multicultural cities reveals a very different story.
Even weddings, funerals and christenings (previously the big three events that would draw people into church buildings) are becoming less commonly 'Chris tian'. People are often getting married and buried in secular, or at least secularized, ceremonies.
The baptism of infants, too, is increasingly rare among nominally Chris tian families. And religious festivals (such as
Good Friday and Easter), which in decades past were guaranteed pew fillers, now seldom attract more than a handful of unfamiliar faces. Christmas is the only Chris tian holiday that retains a semblance of theological imagery and attracts the casual believer to a church ser vice --- and even that is fading as Winterval, the secularized holiday, becomes increasingly prevalent.
But why should this be the case? Jesus still commands huge respect. I remember chatting with a friend over dinner shortly after he'd been invited to speak at Harvard University. He told me that he had asked the president of the university why he had been given such a wonderful opportunity. The president responded with an intriguing story. He explained that some months earlier he had gathered together a group of his senior faculty for a discussion day during which he had raised the subject of Jesus. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Jesus was described as wise, compassionate, generous, gracious,
liberating and forgiving. But later that day, when he asked the same group of tutors their opinions of the church, they gave very different answers --- judgemental, bigoted, self-righ teous,
censorious, finger-wagging and excluding. My friend had been invited to 'redress the balance'. But the president's words to him were stern: 'You've got a problem --- a very big problem.'
The church is often tempted to lay the blame for our decline on the values of the culture in which we live. People nowadays,
we say, aren't interested in church because they have been seduced by the corrupting influences of the age --- the sex, the drugs, the rock and roll, the consumerism and the leisure --- and have little concept of sin.