I made the point previously that whilst most churchgoers know pretty well how they actually ‘do’ church week by week, very few of us have ever stopped to ask the question ‘Why?’ What are we meant to be here for, and therefore how should we be occupying our time? It seems to me that this is a highly urgent question, and I continue to meet more and more people for whom, for one reason or another, church just isn’t cutting it. Neither are we cutting it nationally or culturally, as we lose confidence under the onslaught of secularisation the new atheism, and marginalisation by the society for whose benefit we exist. 2013 has seen us fail signally to affect the political agenda as it has eaten away at historic Christian orthodoxy in the interests of ‘equality’ and political correctness. Church needs some attention, I reckon!
I began with the Bible – suggesting that at its most basic level church is there to carry on doing the stuff which Jesus did whilst he was incarnated here on earth. I could then skip on through church history and explore different understandings which have come to the fore from time to time: church as empire, church as withdrawal from society, ‘christendom’, where it is assumed that everyone is a Christian really, and so on. But I want instead to get a bit more personal, and reflect on my own lifetime, and my own experiences of church for nearly 60 years.
I was brought up as a nonconformist, and it seems to me now on reflection that the model of church which formed me was Church as Fortress. Even in the 50s and 60s we were aware that the new post-war culture was hostile to Christianity, and so what we had to do as Christians was to make sure we didn’t get tainted by the ‘naughty world’ around us. Certainly any engagement with culture was frowned on, because it would probably corrupt us. I can remember an impassioned sermon about why we should all make it an absolute priority to attend the mid-week Bible study, because we went out from Sundays into a world where people swore and drank, and we needed a mid-week top-up of God, because what we had received last Sunday would not on its own be enough to last us for seven days. My prevailing sense of the Christianity of my childhood and youth was all about what we weren’t supposed to do. I even developed the understanding (and I am now sure that this wasn’t official doctrine, just a child’s misunderstanding) that my eternal destiny, heaven or hell, depended on what I happened to be doing at the moment Jesus returned. At least this belief taught me to sin quickly, but if we did conform to the world the consequences could be deadly and eternal.
Is this understanding, of church as the fortress into which we barricade ourselves, alive and well today? I believe it is, although in some subtly different forms, since holiness has become a lot more unfashionable than it was back then. But the ‘change and decay’ mindset, in which the church is the final bastion of unchanging faith while the world around us goes to hell in a handcart, is alive and well among older people. This in turn has implications for those leading churches, whose job therefore is to protect their people from anything which might rock their equilibrium, like change, for example.
There is clearly much in the Bible about being holy, separate, blameless in a corrupt world and so on. But are we really here simply to pull up the drawbridge and try to be good?
Is there any of this fortress mentality in your church?
How does it manifest itself?
What does it demand of its leaders?