What’s Church For? Church as ‘Old Folks’ Club’ Part 2

Last week I ventured the suggestion that the church, or at least my Anglican bit of it, had an elderly culture, and I suggested that this was due at least in part to the fact that we don’t really feel happy with young leaders, and that we don’t have a convincing culture of retirement. I want to say more about both these issues, so let me begin with the first.

At least 20 years ago I heard a talk from some hierarch from Church House in which we were told that the C of E had come to its senses and ceased the policy of sending young ordinands back into the ‘secular’ world to get a bit of experience. Not surprisingly those who were told to ‘come back when you’re 35’ seldom did, as they had settled into life with a family, a career (and a decent salary to go with it) and so on. But as far as I can gather this policy is still alive and well. My friend Ian Paul discusses this very subject in his blog: http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/encouraging-younger-ordinands/ . He quotes from Bob Jackson who claims that

the loss of young ordinands has been a major self-inflicted wound from which the Anglican Church is suffering and that the loss of young clergy has been a major cause of both the ageing and the shrinking of congregations.

The average age of ordinands is around 40, which means that after training and a curacy we don’t really have church senior leaders under 45. And as I said last week chronological age isn’t the whole story: at least some ordinands have been thoroughly socialised into Anglican elderliness long before they ever get let loose on a parish. If you think that ‘You shall go out with joy’ is the cutting edge of contemporary worship that’s a good warning sign.

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Key gatekeepers in the ordination process are the DDOs (Diocesan Directors of Ordinands), who apparently vary in their understanding of the need for ‘Fresh Expressions’ of church, or of the role of the newly created ‘Ordained Pioneer Ministry’ pathway to ordination. So the default mode can easily be that we continue to select and train those who ‘look the part’ in terms of inherited modes of church. Better safe than sorry.

The church is trying hard to promote younger vocations to ordained ministry, with its ‘Call Waiting’ website (callwaiting.org.uk) and regular open days and events. But in spite of some healthier statistics so far the landscape seems to be changing very slowly, and I wonder whether more might be done in terms of deliberate targeting of the kind of churches which are full of young people in their teens and twenties. Sadly many of these churches do not always work hard at celebrating their Anglicanism, which makes their potential ordinands an even riskier proposition, so there may be an even bigger job to be done in winning the hearts of younger people, to whom denominations mean very little, to the Anglican cause.

Of course this all sounds terribly ageist, and of course I’m not wanting to say that we only need young clergy. But I do believe that there is an immense imbalance to correct. This is not just about who feels called to ordination: this is about the heart of the church, which has grown old and tired and which desperately needs an injection of the sorts of things which younger people can bring. But I also believe that we need to work at the other end of the spectrum too, and think hard about the lack of a culture of retirement. Come back next week!

 

OT Lectionary May 4th Easter 3 Zephaniah 3:14 – 20

Zephaniah 1:1 tells us that this prophecy dates from the reign of King Josiah, which would place it in the early 600s BC, and therefore before the Babylonian exile. This certainly fits with the earlier chapters of the book, which are full of dire warnings to the Israelites of the coming judgement when God the Mighty Warrior will turn on them and give them the come-uppance they so richly deserve for their opulent and profane lifestyles. But then at 3:14 there is an abrupt change of tone: suddenly the people are called to rejoice and celebrate because God has commuted their punishment, defeated their oppressors and purified their nation.

As with the book of Isaiah, which we have looked at previously in this blog, it does seem likely that the final paragraphs are later additions, the happy ending written much later towards the end of or after the judgement and purification of the exile. It would rather seem to undermine the prophet’s message of warning if he went on to tell the people that it was all going to end up fine. Neither, as history clearly tells us, was it the case that the restoration happened before the punishment, or instead of it. It was only through the experience of abandonment and punishment that Israel could learn her lesson and step back into God’s favour.

As a post-Easter reading this seems to speak to us of cheap grace. The salvation of the human race, whilst it had always been God’s plan, didn’t happen without judgement or punishment. It was only through the cross that we could be restored to our inheritance as God’s people. I have often said to different congregations, whilst talking about that greatest of post-modern virtues ‘tolerance’, that God is not tolerant; he is forgiving, and there is all the difference in the world between those two concepts.

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But once we have been ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven, just look at the scenario which Zephaniah paints for us! Once the Mighty Warrior is for you rather than against you, there is no need for fear, no room for oppression, no call for dishonour or shame. When the one who was fighting against you because you were living against him starts singing songs of joy over you as a beloved daughter, you know something dramatic has happened. In the past it took a generation or more of exile: in Christ it took three days. Hallelujah – what a Saviour!

So often when we come to worship we see ourselves as in some way putting on a performance which we hope God will enjoy. This passage helps us to see things differently. In a most un-Anglican way God is seen singing, shouting, delighting, rejoicing. He may even have put his arms in the air like a good charismatic: who knows? The really good news is that we are invited to join in. He is not in the audience holding up cards with numbers on to assess our attempts at worship: he is partying with all he’s got, and inviting us to the party too.

What’s Church For? Church as ‘Old Folks’ Club’ Part 1

OK, I’ve got my protective headgear on. This one’s going to get me into trouble. I want to have a bit of a rant about the culture of ‘church’ which, I have discovered, is overwhelmingly elderly. My text or icon for this is the word ‘refreshments’. Who under the age of 60 ever uses the word ‘refreshments’? Yet in church it’s a regular part of our vocab, and for me it has become symbolic of the whole way in which the church has an elderly culture and feel.

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‘So what’s so bad about being elderly?’ I hear you cry. Nothing at all. I know we have a cult of youth and beauty in our current Western culture, and I know that we have little respect for the experience and accumulated wisdom of older people. This is tragic. But I think there is all the difference in the world between being ‘old’ and being ‘elderly’. I got my B&Q Diamond card nearly two years ago, but I don’t yet feel anywhere near ready to be elderly. It’s all about mindset, not chronological age. We all know people who are 40 going on 70, and we all know amazing people in their 80s and 90s who listen to Dubstep and are most at home with teenagers. So please don’t read this as a slagging off of senior citizens. But it all becomes a problem when we grieve over the absence of young families and 30-somethings from our churches but continue to invite the congregation for ‘refreshments’ after the service. The whole mindset and culture of the church, or at least my Anglican bit of it, cries out ‘We’re a club for senior citizens!’

So how, apart from the R-word, does this elderly mindset manifest itself? Of course any culture will tend to perpetuate itself as it gathers to it those who feel comfortable with the status quo. But that means that we will have to work extra hard at communicating with a younger age-group. In one church I worked in some years ago we were beginning to engage with modern technology by recording talks and putting them up on the website. One member of staff used to announce regularly that people could listen to the service on cassette or ‘through some new-fangled electronic means which I don’t understand’. However much I tried to tell her that the world was ‘online’, there was a refusal to embrace what was obviously an unfamiliar piece of technology, and instead to turn it into a shared joke for others who weren’t quite up to speed with the 21st century. In fact what this did was to communicate, far more eloquently than any of my sermons ever did, and what it communicated was that we are a church for the elderly and proud of it. And then we wonder why we have no young families. Durr!

It isn’t just about technology: it’s about humour and what we expect people to find funny; it’s about references, or the lack of them, to the current TV programmes, films or chart-topping music; it’s about our social programmes and outings … there are so many manifestations of elderliness. But there is a deeper problem. Elderly culture is perpetuated by elderly people, and who are Anglican churches led by? You’ve got it in one. We have, I believe, two problems which contribute to this issue: we don’t fundamentally believe in having young leaders (I’ll defend this outrageous statement next time), and we have no real culture of retirement. I want to tackle these twin problems in future episodes of this blog, but before I end this one I need to affirm the vitally important role of older people in the life of the church. We all know faithful prayer-warriors, practical servants, wise counsellors and so on who might not be able to get physically to services any more but without whom we would be so much worse off. I’m not advocating a cull at age 50. But I do want to question the I’m sure unthought-out policies which as a church we seem to have fallen into, whilst at the same time bewailing the lack of contact with a whole generation of younger people. More next week, but for now I’m going to crawl into my bunker and hide.

OT Lectionary 27th April Easter 2 Ex 14:10-31, 15:20-21

‘Sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.’

Let’s be honest: it does go against the grain a bit to celebrate death. We’re all jolly glad that the poor enslaved Israelites have managed to escape from that nasty Pharaoh, but was it really necessary to end the business with a mass drowning? In the past victories in battle were celebrated with great jubilation. But nowadays we’ve reached perhaps more enlightened times when we understand that warfare actually has no victors: the whole business is destructive too all concerned, and the slaughter of those whom we perceive to be our enemies, along no doubt with some ‘collateral damage’ to innocent bystanders, is hardly something to make a song and dance about. So what are we to make of today’s OT, where we see the death of the Egyptians as a necessary concomitant of the liberation of Israel, and an outbreak of jubilant praise by Miriam and the girls.

 

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Indeed this is a problem for other parts of the OT. In 40 years’ time the Israelites are going to arrive finally at the Land promised to them by God, and they are going to be instructed to wipe out all the inhabitants unmercifully. The fact that they fail to do so, and are therefore nicer than God is, is going to get them into all kinds of trouble, according to the OT storytellers. So how do we cope with the destruction of enemies in the Scriptures, and what might it all mean for us today?

I think there are two approaches we might make to this problem, the individual and the spiritual. First of all it seems to be a natural law that whenever there are winners there are also losers. Egypt had so frequently and so deliberately hardened its corporate heart against God, who had given them so many opportunities to obey him, that they had forced themselves into a position where the only way for Israel to win her liberation was through their defeat. Pharaoh could at any point have compromised or even just given in, but he refused to do so, and the nation bore the consequences. (Of course the fate of individual soldiers who were ‘just obeying orders’ is of no interest to the OT writers who were untainted by enlightenment individualism and always thought ‘corporate’.) I think there’s something here about both the power of national leadership to affect the well-being (or otherwise) of the whole nation, and the responsibility of people to make sure they’re on the right side. Actions have consequences, and to align ourselves with evil means that we pay the piper sooner or later. Egypt paid that price, and after giving them so many chances to change their position of fixed opposition to him, God can hardly be blamed for punishing them. Indeed he reaches the point where we’re told he ‘hardens Pharaoh’s heart’, realising this is going nowhere so let’s just get it over with. The same is true of the genocide at the time of the conquest: the Bible’s take on this is that it wasn’t that Israel was holy, but that the Canaanite nations were so offensive to God and richly deserved their come-uppance (Deut 9:5). Where we place ourselves, the way we live, to whom we are aligned, matters. No excuses.

But secondly the choice of this reading during Easter suggests the link with cross and resurrection. Again there can be no victory without someone else’s defeat, and John’s gospel particularly makes the point that Christ’s death on the cross was also the crowning of a victorious king, with the powers of darkness defeated, until that final day when they will be destroyed. Evil isn’t just human: behind it are the spiritual forces of darkness in the spiritual realms, and on them God will have no mercy. So to celebrate our salvation through the cross is at the same time to celebrate the defeat of all that is evil, and of those who have given their lives to perpetuating it. So maybe we should get those tambourines out after all, as long as we remember to pray for those unwittingly caught up in the pursuit of evil: ‘Father forgive them, because they don’t understand what they’re doing’.

What’s Church for? Church as Famine Zone

‘The days are coming,’ declares the Sovereign Lord, ‘when I will send a famine through the land— not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.’

I’m aware that when you go looking for something to prove a point you usually find it, but I have been struck just over the past couple of months by the sheer number of people who have come into my orbit who have given up on church, but not on God. Now of course this is not a new phenomenon: Alan Jamieson wrote a masterly study of the subject back in 2002 (A Churchless Faith, London: SPCK). But never have I encountered so many people in quick succession who are Christians but no longer churchgoers. So I have been conducting my own piece of market research, and trying to discern what it was that has made them neglect meeting together in church. Again and again I heard the same narrative. These are not people who have left in anger, who have been hurt or abused or who have particularly fallen out with anyone. They left because they wanted to grow in God, but were not being fed. They just couldn’t see the point of staying.

 

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My ministry has always been a teaching ministry, so forgive me if I get a bit worked up about this, but my key verse has long been Colossians 1:28: ‘admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.’ I also resonate with Paul’s passion for maturity in Gal 4:19: ‘My dear children … I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.’ Yet people are telling me that in spite of really trying hard, they simply can’t stand to remain in churches where nothing they hear moves them onward in their faith.

This famine takes a variety of forms: for some it is about an aversion to lengthy periods of singing banal and facile worship-songs at the expense of nourishing teaching. For others they are fed up with hearing the gospel preached week after week, but with nothing to nurture those who have responded to it years ago. Every sermon is about ‘Have you given your life to Christ? If not you need to do it today.’ For still others there is a diet of ‘Jesus loves you very, very much indeed, so everything is going to be fine’ every week, while others were supposed to grow in Christ on a diet of liberal platitudes (I once heard a sermon, the full text of which I give you here: ‘As long as we just love each other nothing much can go wrong. Amen.’), or political opinions. We may get homilies about Saints from past ages, or explanations (again!) of the meaning of the particular feast-day or occasion, or we may simply get a few holy thoughts on the lectionary (for which read the Gospel of the day – hence my attempt to blog on the OT passage).

So where is the systematic and strategic application of the Word of God to people’s lives where they are actually being lived? When are we going to hear something we don’t already know, which we haven’t been told hundreds of times before, and which will take us another step towards Christian maturity? I have attempted in a small way to encourage us to take the teaching ministry more seriously, in my How to Preach Strategically (Cambridge: Grove W211, 2012 – see www.grovebooks.co.uk) . But I can’t help thinking, faithful study and preaching by many leaders notwithstanding, that we are living in a time when the word of the Lord is rare. I commend to you the strapline of one of my favourite churches: ‘Meet God: Meet friends: Live life better’. If only more teachers and preachers could be trained and equipped to help people do that.

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It’s just not fair! An Easter special

Due to circumstances in our lives we haven’t really been able to enter into the whole Lent thing with any great enthusiasm this year, but I did enjoy going as is our custom to Canterbury Cathedral for the Palm Sunday Eucharist, which included the singing of the whole Passion Narrative according to Matthew. We’re so used to hearing Scripture in little bits that it can have real impact from time to time to listen to a much larger chunk: like standing back from a view you can see some very different things. As I heard again the familiar story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution I was struck very strongly by one thought: it’s just not fair!

Now maybe I particularly heard that this year because I’m still recovering from a period where I felt misunderstood, bullied and persecuted, or because I’ve had cancer, but this sense of injustice, the unfairness of it all is what I’ll take home from Easter this year. Maybe there are things in your life, too, which just don’t feel fair. Maybe Jesus can help.

 

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First of all, this whole sorry mess occurs because Jesus is misunderstood. He has come from God to save the world, for goodness’ sake, but instead he is hounded by the very people he has come to do good to. They see him as a threat to their status quo, which of course he is, but only because they are so blind that they can’t see what he is really about. When people don’t get what we’re trying to do, especially when we’re trying to help them, and try to portray us as villains, it can really hurt. Jesus has had this sense of being misunderstood and therefore opposed for three years now, and I guess it must have got a bit wearing.

Of course his Father didn’t help. Why wouldn’t he take this cup away and find some other method for the salvation of the human race? All that agonised prayer didn’t change a thing. That can’t have seemed fair either.

Jesus’ arrest demonstrated their misunderstanding even further. Did the one who had healed the sick and welcomed children really need swords and clubs, and did those who were with him need to try to fight back with the same weapons? ‘What have I been trying to teach them for three years?’ Jesus must have wondered. ‘Have they grasped anything of what I’m about?’

Then to be betrayed and denied can’t have helped. These were his friends, those who ought to have been for him, but in the end sheer cowardice turned them against him, not because he had done anything to harm them, but because they were just too weak. That hurts too: that just isn’t fair.

The trial is of course a travesty, and when the legal process becomes unfair there is something seriously wrong. And would the crowds really want to choose a murderer in preference to the Prince of Life? Maybe, or maybe not, but the authorities soon stirred them up: it isn’t hard to work a crowd if you know what you’re doing.

But maybe the final cut must have been to be accused of blasphemy when you’re actually telling nothing but the truth. Of all the manifestations of unfairness, this must take the biscuit.

So how do we react when life is unfair, when others misunderstand or persecute us; when they call evil what we are trying to do for good? I see in Jesus a total lack of any surprise at all this injustice, no attempt at all at self-justification or point-scoring, no apparent self-pity or even anger. He knows, as we do, that he is after all the master of his own destiny, having chosen to accept his Father’s will. He believes that he will be vindicated, and he seems content to let people rant on all around him while he retains a quiet dignity. Now that is one area where I could do with being a bit more Christlike.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.

 

What’s Church For? Church as ‘Big Business’

Is the Church a business? That’s a question which is asked from time to time, usually expecting the answer ‘No!’, and often in response to calls to become a bit more efficient in what we do. My boss when I was a member of Bishop’s Senior Staff in one diocese used to say to clergy that if they expected to get a pay cheque at the end of each month then Church was indeed a business! My answer is that church is certainly more than just a business, but that it cannot be less. So let’s have a look at this question, and what lies beneath it.

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We do have a bit of an aversion to thinking of Church in these terms. Whilst the C of E, with its sheer weight of bureaucracy and its establishment as the state church is probably a bit less nervous about this, other denominations would resist the idea strongly. I suspect that this is due to the image of the commercial world in which businesses are there solely to make money, where no-one cares about anyone else, where the art is to climb the corporate ladder as quickly as possible, never mind who you have to trample on to do so … you know all the caricatures. If that’s what business really is, then clearly the Church has a completely different set of values. But there may be other ways of looking at the commercial world, which can speak a lot more positively to the Church.

It may be that business is about getting the job done as effectively and efficiently as possible. It may be about requiring the right kinds of behaviour in order to get it done, and holding to account those who fail to act in the right ways. It may be about having such a firm belief in your product that you can’t help but sell it to those to whom it would be of benefit. And it may be about investing in employees so that they are mentored and coached to reach their full potential as members of the company. In that case Christians might not feel quite so negative about the idea that Church ought to look a bit more like this.

But it is my conviction that there is an even more compelling reason why Church ought at the very least to be businesslike. Quite simply, the bumbling inefficiency with which many churches run will in the end inhibit growth. We may put a high value on being a ‘happy family’ where relationships count for far more than effectiveness does (see my blog on ‘Church as Family’ here: https://revjohnleach.com/2014/03/05/whats-church-for-church-as-family/) but that approach is unlikely to grow the church beyond around 65 members. (It is worth saying that I am an unapologetic fan of numerical church growth: the only reason a church should be small is that it is constantly planting out new congregations.) Show me a seriously large church, and I’ll show you a church which takes seriously the business side of running itself. Somewhere like Holy Trinity Brompton is, with its ‘Alpha’ franchise, is a multi-million pound business, and as a result hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been touched by, and benefitted from, its ministry. That quite simply couldn’t have happened if it was run from a corner of the church hall by an administrator who could only just use a computer. With hundreds of employees (and the last I heard an HR department of four staff), there is a lot of business to take care of, and yet this church has not ceased being at its heart a parish church where the gospel is faithfully preached, the people are discipled, and God is worshipped.

Most local churches aren’t HTB, of course, but I can’t help but think that a more businesslike approach might do us all good. We have a product to ‘sell’ (faith in Jesus Christ), a workforce to sell it (the congregation), bills to pay, and a choice about whether we’re going to try to reach a greater proportion of the marketplace, or stay content with the ones we’ve got. So to invest in our image, our advertising, our buildings, our people, isn’t, surely, to sell our soul to the god of Mammon? Thinking like a business, of course, is not the magic ingredient to bring revival to our land, but I certainly reckon it could help.
What do you think?