At last its back to blogging after a good summer break and a hectic September. Sorry it's been so long. A great big thank you to Dave Bish for guest blogging during August.
I don't usually read the Daily Telegraph, but today I got one free with a bottle of water on the train. A letter writer confidently claims to have found the reason "we Christians do not go to church". I was all ears!
His contention is that "we Christians" no longer have confidence in getting well known hymns, traditional structure and time to contemplate "the comforting words". His answer: harvest hymns, a lesson from the Authorised Version, a choral anthem, the Nunc Dimittis, Book of Common Prayer prayers and an address, all taking no more than 35 minutes. "Surely" he appealed "the majority of former churchgoers would return to the fold if offered a service such as this."
I searched the letter in vain for any sign that this was a joke. It wasn't. But it left me wondering at what point in the UK did allow large numbers of people to cease to distinguish between "churchgoers" and "Christians" in the popular imagination, as this writer fails to do. Maybe its an age-old thing born out of the expectation of an established church that attending Sunday services (regardless of belief or lack thereof) was roughly the same thing as being a good citizen.
Maybe, however, it’s a factor in the life of every fellowship. At some point in the life of most local churches a critical point is reached when the core fellowship of those committed to gospel vision are outnumbered by a fringe who are there for quite different reasons, be it spiritual comfort, kids activities, personal support, or whatever. Regardless of the particular type of church government, all fellowships struggle to maintain focus around core vision when the fringe, be they believers or not, outnumber the gospel-oriented core. It is very hard to maintain focus, or alter any aspect of church life to reflect the gospel needs of a fresh generation, when the majority are committed to maintaining their comfort. When this happens "Christians" have been replaced with "churchgoers" who assume they are Christians.
Compare this mentality with that of the church where I was invited to do some leaders' training and to preach this weekend. Their Church vision statement, clearly displayed and given attention is "Bethany City Church is building a community who live and love like Jesus and who want to get everyone in Sunderland into Heaven." Instead of church members, or church attendees, they talk about becoming a church partner - an active participant with God's people, for God's purposes. There was no sense at all that it was OK to be merely an attendee.
The letter writer may be correct that churchgoers would return to services like he describes. The trouble is that they might well not be Christians and what they would be returning to would be a museum rather than a church. But before I am too critical I have to ask whether the same instinct to enshrine the backward glance at familiarity and comfort is present in my church too. The biggest factor in the slow death of churches is the inability to continue to connect with gospel vision when generations change. The next generation inevitably do things differently in order to present the same gospel with effectiveness to their culture. If the majority refuse to hand on the gospel baton to the next generation, choosing instead to enshrine their culture, style and expectations, that fellowship will become a museum piece sooner or later.
Our preference might not be for the Nunc Dimittis. It might be for Spurgeon, nostalgia for historic revivals, 70s Kendrick or Matt Redman. Whatever historical or stylistic preference we choose to enshrine - apart from the gospel - will lead us - slowly but inexorably - to Daily Telegraph church death.