What’s Church for? Church as Disappointment

Last time we thought about the halcyon days of the 80s when the church, or at least the evangelical/charismatic bits of it, thought of itself as an army, trampling down Satan and bringing in the promised revival which would usher in the return of Jesus. Inevitably disappointment was to follow, and although there is some evidence that we did see church growth in the 80s it fell far short of the tales we had been devouring from Wales, the Hebrides and other places. we emerged into the final decade of the 20th century, designated by the C of E ‘the decade of evangelism’ sadder and wiser, and determined to apply a slightly more rigorous business model to church growth. Many of the teenagers who had worshipped and prayed so heartily were now busy making money and getting married.

Of course the management gurus had been making inroads into church strategy and planning for a while, and of course were greeted with cries of ‘Unspiritual!’ from many who would rather trust in the Lord than in John Harvey Jones. But in the 90s we began seriously to think about vision, strategy and planning. Meanwhile the worshipping life of the evangelical church changed dramatically, reflecting a new vision of what it was we thought we were supposed to be doing.

Under the joint influences of the growing movement towards political correctness and the ever-widening influence of the Vineyard churches (especially on ‘Anglican’ churches through ‘New Wine’, which began in 1989) worship songs began to be less about taking the nations and beating down Satan and more about personal intimacy with God. Our ‘hearts’, our personal and secret relationships with God seemed to be the most important thing, eclipsing any calling or ministry we might have to the nations. Intimacy with God has always been the core value of worship in the Vineyard movement, and worship (for which read ‘singing’) was seen much less as spiritual warfare and much more as a chance for me and Jesus to draw close together. Some unhelpful exegesis of the Greek word ‘proskuneo’, which, we were told, means literally ‘to approach to kiss’, backed this up. In fact the word means ‘to make a cone-shape towards’, that is to bow down with your face to the ground and your bum in the air, a classic gesture of submission to a conquering king rather than a lover’s kiss.

Of course we didn’t altogether stop talking about revival (although we pretty much stopped singing about it), but it seemed that our hearts weren’t really in it. This decade, call it the decade of evangelism or not, was about the church drawing closer to God. But then quite suddenly in the summer of 1994, we were hit by a new phenomenon, the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’. Starting from a Vineyard church near Toronto Airport (although with some prehistory before that) it swept the British charismatic church, bringing joy and dismay in equal proportions. Some thought it really was a brand new move of the Holy Spirit: others that it was a Satanic deception, designed to divert the church from its real task of obeying Scripture (except of course those bits which told us to be filled with the Spirit).

My own take on this, as a parish priest at the time, was that it was immensely important for our congregation and our city, and I believe that the fruits of this blessing are still significant today. Others, with hindsight, tell us that a slightly jaded movement like charismatic renewal would inevitably have some kind of an attempt to kindle new excitement (although I never actually heard anyone say that except with hindsight). But as a decade of evangelism the general reflection is that it was a failure, and that growth during the 80s had been much more significant. But the new millennium brought new hope: wouldn’t it be great if Jesus returned as we entered the noughties?

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