Re-imagining the Church.

Shropshire Light Conference. November 16th 2013.

I want to thank Bishop Mark and Bishop Alastair very much for their warm welcome to your conference. One definition of an expert is someone from 100 miles away with a brief case. I am here not as an expert in Christian ministry but, if being an Archbishop means anything, it does mean I have been around a lot and know a great deal about success and failure.

It is a real pleasure to be here because one of my greatest pleasures in Christian ministry is to support the local ministries of the Church. And when I say that I mean all churches. My time when I was a Minister in Durham – now a long time ago- convinced me that churches can grown, should grow and must grow. I firmly believe that the most dire situation can be redeemed and the most impossible church can be turned around.

So, throughout this address and in the workshop that follows a particular verse from the Bible will echo again and again. It comes from 1 Sam 10: 26 ‘Saul also went to his home in Gibeah, accompanied by valiant men whose hearts God has touched’.

I am sure that most of us are here because God touched our hearts sometime in the past. Perhaps it was a conversion touch; or it might have been an ordination touch; or it might have been something triggered by baptism, a marriage or simply arose from your walk with God. People with touched hearts are the people who turn the world upside down. Have that verse in your minds as I deliver this address.

But I do want to begin also by saying this: I happen to believe that the church today is doing great things, tremendous things, and we have much to be proud of! Up and down our country, without a lot of fuss, our many churches are getting on with the job and we can rejoice in that.

But – well there is always a but, isn’t there! – we know that tremendous challenges are facing us. In many parts of Britain churches are struggling, some priests are diffident and lack confidence; a feeling of defeat is around. The burden seems heavy and joy in  ministry has been replaced by a feeling of heaviness.

Let us consider the problems through the lens or three different views.

The first viewpoint is the world around us. How does the world see the church?  The viewpoint could be expressed in a variety of non -verbal ways: The shrug of indifference, the rolled eyes of embarrassment, the yawn of boredom. So many people do not see the average church as a place where great things happen. To sit in a cold church looking at the back of other peoples’ heads is surely not the best place to meet exciting people and to hear prophetic words. So there is an inbuilt difficulty in getting people to church because it is not natural to our culture and society.  Some churches send out a forbidding message with their huge buildings, out of date posters and drab exteriors.

How do we see our societies?  What comes into our mind when we think of the houses around the local church?  My mind flash back to the early days of my youth when I had just joined the church and was beginning my Christian journey. Our vicar was a muscular Christian who believed in open air preaching. A former missionary he was in favour of accosting people wherever he could. Once a month we would go with him to a particular part of the parish – there would be about 30 of us – we would have an accordionist and we would sing gospel songs. Then, in turn we would harangue the people gathered in their living rooms. We would have a mike and we would shout out four minute talks with sin as the key word. I remember at the time wondering what we were doing. Did we really believe that we were extending the kingdom in that way? There was never ever evidence that a person came to faith. Who got the most pleasure from that exercise? Did God approve? Did we get a thrill from shouting at others and calling out texts? I suppose why I was rather worried was that it displayed an attitude to the world that was totally negative in character. Don’t get me wrong. I believe there is a place for stating the full gospel but to this day I am not convinced that standing on a soapbox and disturbing the peace was the right thing to do. What I felt, even as a teenager, was that the view of the world that those open air services showed was totally, extremely, negative. Was that how God sees our society? Under judgement? Didn’t he love the world? You see, the way we see the world conditions our message, our attitudes and even our style of ministry.

How does God see the Church? I used to be very critical of the church when I was much younger.  And it is easy to get infuriated with the structures and bureaucracy of dioceses. But I changed when read Ephesians a little more closely and read that ‘Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her.’ I then began to think, if that is God’s attitude to his people, then I ought to be loving and respect and value this crazy, mixed up body.. It was Bishop Geoffrey Paul who once said: ‘There is no way of belonging to Christ except by belonging to that glorious rag bag of saints and fatheads who make up the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ And you and I are part of this glorious rag-bag. 

God’s viewpoint is expressed so well by C.S.Lewis in Screwtape Letters puts so well. The Church is described  there  ‘as a body spread out through all time and space, rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners’.  That is how the Lord sees us. So whatever we do, and whatever our mission, we should see the church today, not merely as your church with several dozen in it, but a massive and great body of the living and the departed- the saints today and the saints of long ago- as one body in time and eternity whose delight is to the Lord’s will.

So, that is our starting point, that is our theology, that is our ideology.

And now I have four challenges for us all as we seek to do his will. Four things that will  revolutionise our churches if we have the courage to put them into action.

1.  Let us appreciate the church but let us reimagine it.  So I want each of you now to think of your church and mentally describe it to yourself. What is it like? I am sure it is full of good and earnest people. The work goes on faithfully week after week. And I have a pretty good idea of your church because most churches are the same; similar things go on in them. It is recognizable.. as the hymn puts it: ‘In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear, for safe in such confiding, for nothing changes here!’

So, if you and I want to start on a process of re-imagining the church perhaps we have to go back to basics and, for me, the starting point would be the Great Commission: ‘Go and preach the gospel’.  What I notice from my study of the bible is that both the Hebrew word for congregation, qahal, and the Greek word for church, ecclesia, are not static words but active words. Both essential mean ‘gathering’. Ecclesia, means’called out’ and ‘qahal’ the same. But called out for what? Why, called out to follow! People gathered round the Lord to hear his word and to put it into practice. The essential and key theme here is spirituality.  Inwardly, we sometimes complain: ‘The church is irrelevant to the world; no one wants to hear our message’.  But how can that be when our society is traumatised by too much violence, too many divided families, too little job security, too many young people with nothing to aim for and materialism as the only goal in life? The irony is that at the same time as the materialistic Taliban of Dawkins, Peter Atkins and others denigrating religion, we have statistics that show that people are essentially searching for spiritual fulfillment. A medical gathering some years ago at Houston concluded that:

Open heart surgery patients are 12 times more likely to survive if they have a religious faith and social support.

That mortality rates are 25% lower for men and 35% lower for women who attend religious services once a week or more.

That people who attend churches or synagogues regularly are more likely to live longer.

That 1/3rd of all medical schools in the US now offer courses on medicine and spirituality.

Now, we might say ‘that is American stuff. They are more likely to believe that’. But Alistair Sims, a well known Psychiatrist and former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, in his book ‘Is Faith Delusion?’ agrees with the research coming out of America. Faith is good for your health, he argues.  Let me quote from his book, Is Faith Delusion? ‘Research shows that overall there is a positive relationship between religious faith and practice and better mental health. The major work describing this is Koenig, McCullough and Larson, The Handbook of Religion and Health based on 1200 research studies and 400 reviews’.

So this prompts a very interesting question: ‘Why aren’t we emphasizing far more the transformative effects of Christianity?  Of prayer being answered? Of sins being forgiven? Of reconciliation taking place? Of lives being touched? We  in today’s maintenance centred churches are largely focusing on keeping the machine going and in good order – and believe me, I know of the devotion of so many people in so doing.

What I am urging is a return to basics where our expectation is for transformed lives. This is not a cry for more gimmicks  but simply a cry to go deeper. Let me read the beginning of a Bishop’s letter from the US. This bishop retired a few years ago but he set in motion a drive that is still effective and leading to growth, “The vision of our diocese is clear: we are one church of miraculous expectation and glorious transformation. We are living the core Christian value of love, and we are carrying the good news of Jesus Christ to those around us in terms they can understand. We are experiencing the miraculous in our lives and we are being transformed’.

My second affirmation is that: Our task is to nurture fellow Christians but also to grow authentic disciples. And this affirmation is about moving from encouraging fellow believers to moving them on into discipleship. Consider in your mind now, some people who come along to church but as far as you know are rather passive Christians. They are faithful in attendance but that is the extent of their involvement in church life. We might long to see them developing as a public Christian. How might that happen?

The well known Saddleback Community Church in the US use an illustration of a baseball diamond. Perhaps you are as ignorant of baseball as I am, but imagine a baseball pitch with four bases. The first base is membership ( knowing Christ); the second base is maturity ( growing in Christ); the third base is ministry (serving Christ) and the fourth base is mission ( Sharing Christ).  This may sound a little technical and, of course,  the image is only that, an illustration of people developing in the Christian life. So many are stuck at first base. And, in most churches first base is becoming overcrowded! They find it difficult to move on.

However, what we discover through research is that most people grow as Christians through encounter and encouragement with other Christians.  I remember our time in Durham. Elizabeth, who was and is a fine Christian lady had a husband who hardly went to church but he was one of the senior city planners. We had just started on a building project so I hit upon the idea of asking him for advice. He was delighted to assist and eventually joined the committee, then gradually attended church more regularly, then became a leader and eventually one of the key people in the team. It made me realize how bad we clergy are at inviting others, encouraging others. We seem to be so like bird watchers – we are so pleased to see rare creatures that we instinctively feel that even a little movement will frighten them away! Stupid, isn’t it. If that is our measure of success it is pathetic, to say the least.

No, we must break away from the tendency to be so cautious, so nice and undemanding. If the gospel is as we say, a matter of life and death, then we must make demands, we must encourage, we must be un- frightened to go out of our way and strengthen the sinews of others. May I encourage you to make the discipleship one of the key targets of the coming year.

My third affirmation is let’s acknowledge the role of Christians in society but let us aim to be agents of social transformation.  We can all be proud of what the churches are doing in society- much more than people know. But I feel the time has come to ratchet up our commitment to serving our communities around us. Often the dirty word is the word relevance. Christians cry: ‘It is not our job to be relevant. Our job is to follow Christ’. I agree. But no one was more relevant than our Lord in serving others. Look at him out and about, touching hearts, lives, healing and ministering. I don’t understand this opposition to be being relevant. If we are not relevant we are not being faithful. Eileen were in Toronto last week and I gave several talks at a Church school. It is a bustling, successful school which is now at the cutting edge of education in that great city. It is a relatively new school. Its story began when the Rector of Holy Trinity School Thornhill and several families expressed their dismay at schools around them. ‘We can do a better job’ they said. So, in the basement of the church in 1981 the school began with a roll of 60 children. No one expected that many but it started with vision, but with very little money. Over the years the school has grown to be one of the best in Canada.     It is wonderful example of a few people catching a vision and with energy, enthusiasm and faith, moving forward. Think of the ‘food banks’ pioneered by the Russell Trust, a Christian organisation which is widely known and greatly admired. Or, think of Archbishop Justin’s drive for the Church to get involved in Credit Unions. I could give other illustrations and no doubt some initiatives will spring to your minds.

Every church should have one or two relevant ministries to the world around. It might be in social action through old peoples’ ministry, through children’s work or a few in the congregation involved on the local council. If all our work simply starts and stops at us we should really question our ministry.

As I look at the church today the most urgent and worrying gap is in young peoples work. So many churches have no ministry to young people and that means they have no interest in the future. As I have repeated many times in the past ‘we are one generation away from extinction’. We have to give cogent reasons to young people why the Christian faith is relevant to them. For most of us, our hearts were touched when we were young and that precious touch we should not hold from our young people. Of course, young people are notoriously difficult, demanding and high maintenance. And so were we- but people cared for us and gave us a place in the church.

The key word is ‘energy’ and we know that any new ministry is going to be very demanding. A friend of mine said last week that a Muslim friend commented that the difference between Muslim communities in this country and the church is ‘energy’. The churches seem so tired and listless, the man commented. I can’t argue with that. Perhaps we are doing too much and need to revise our priorities; perhaps we are dispirited and need to be renewed. Whatever the reason, a deeper commitment to serving our societies will emerge from spiritual renewal and from that touch of the Spirit I was talking about earlier. But it might be a help to remind you of Philippians 2, 12/13  where Paul talks of ‘working out our salvation’. The verb is the same word as our word ‘energy’ but then in v.13 Paul adds: ‘For God is at work in you’. The same word ‘energy’. What we see there is the synergy of the Lord and us in serving others. He takes hold of ours gifts and we take hold of all the grace he puts on at our disposal.

Finally, the fourth area is to continue to encourage giving but to promote authentic stewardship.  I am sure you will note that these four themes of deepening church life, growing discipleship, becoming agents of social transformation and stewardship are all interconnected. Touch one and you feel the other three vibrating. Stewardship, of course, means more that money- it takes in the use of our time as well as the offering of our talents and our possessions. Stewardship is a measure of our commitment to Jesus Christ and to his cause. How deeply we believe in the power of the Christian faith and of the triune God to transform lives will determine how committed we are to giving our best to the Lord.  But it does and must include money and without repentance I feel I must major on this as well for a few minutes.  There is the story of an American mother who  wanted to teach her daughter a moral lesson. She gave the little girl a quarter and a dollar for church "Put whichever one you want in the collection plate and keep the other for yourself," she told the girl. When they were coming out of church, the mother asked her daughter which amount she had given. "Well," said the little girl, "I was going to give the dollar, but just before the collection the man in the pulpit said that we should all be cheerful givers. I knew I'd be a lot more cheerful if I gave the quarter, so I did." 

My long experience of serving in the church has convinced me that lack of resources is one of our biggest challenges and yet one of our greatest opportunities. Of course, I am fully aware that there are some very poor people in our churches who cannot give very much and Jesus’ story of the widow is a reminder that we should not make them more guilty.

But there are others who can give more, far more, and this becomes a challenge for those of us who are leaders to raise the bar on giving and  to stimulate a more practical and healthy attitude to generous and sacrificial giving.

Why is this so important? There are two ready answers I would give. First, it makes available greater opportunities for service and for recruitment. Let me take you back to my concern that we should be investing in Youth Work. A generous and giving church would have resources to get a full time or part time young worker.

But the second reason is that giving more or time is an aspect of our discipleship. It is both a proclamation and a demonstration of belonging to Jesus; it is my love offering to a Lord who gave everything to me.

So my fourfold presentation to you this morning is essentially a commentary on that verse in 1 Sam 10: ‘Saul also went to his home in Gibeah, accompanied by valiant men whose hearts God has touched’.

Touched lives always convey the freshness of reimagination, and reimaging the God who surprises us. Touched lives takes us down deeper in authentic discipleship, an alertness to the world around us and to a radical discipleship.  It is interesting that God could have touched the intellects of Saul’s band, but he didn’t. He could have touched their wills, but he didn’t. He could have touched their emotions, but he didn’t.

He touched their hearts because that meant he had the whole of them.  And that essentially is what the Christian faith is about.- and that is why we are here today.

© George Carey