What’s Church For? Dying of Encouragement


It’s amazing how a change gives new perspective. Having escaped from a situation of abuse and bullying I’m now getting my feet under the table as a Diocesan Officer, a role I enjoyed ten years ago in Wales. As I get to know my new Diocese two phrases come back into my mind: ‘Morale is very low around here’ and ‘The first task of a leader is to define reality’.


I do understand the importance of encouragement; I really do. I know it gets the best out of people, makes them feel less useless etc etc. I just don’t find it easy, because my natural instinct is to define reality, and when it comes to the Church the reality is far more often than not anything but encouraging.


Recently I had to wade through a pile of forms returned by the parishes of our Diocese. One of the questions was ‘What Christian initiative is making the biggest impact in your area?’ When I saw more than one church answering ‘Bingo’ to that question, I have to confess I didn’t feel encouraged, although I suppose even that was preferable to the many forms which simply said ‘None’. But, of course, morale is very low round here, so you are only allowed to be encouraging. 

Call me a nasty heretic, but I have a theory. My theory is that the main reason why morale is low is that church leaders are so busy trying to feel encouraged that they never get around to stopping, looking around, and saying ‘This is just dire!’ We’re so busy dying of encouragement that we seldom reach the point of despair, the kind of despair which drives us to our knees to cry out to God that this stuff just isn’t working and that we desperately need something new. We sometimes might weep for ourselves, but rarely do we weep for the Church, and for the nation which is going to hell in a handcart under our ineffectual noses. But at the end of the day, playing ‘Let’s pretend’ doesn’t fool anyone, and trying to keep up the pretence is exhausting.


I’m currently planning a roadshow to take around the Diocese to launch a discipleship initiative, and what I would really love to see is our Bishop breaking down in tears, throwing himself onto the floor and screaming out to God for his mercy, his forgiveness, his renewal of his Church. What we’ll probably do is a nice Anglican prayer with a little response after each paragraph, because that’s what we do in our dignified, understated way, and we’ll probably go away feeling a little bit more encouraged at the end of the evening. You can’t win ‘em all.


But there is a real tension here, between reality and encouragement. Personally I have found nothing encourages me more than coming face to face with my utter uselessness, my total dependence on God, my desperate, gut-wrenching need of his Spirit, and my complete inability to build anything at all of value without him. As a Diocesan Officer I’m not supposed to go around the place telling churches they’re useless: that really would be bad form, even if it was the reality. But if only a few churches could come to that realisation by themselves, and if only we could create a culture where fervent and tearful intercession was allowed, we might start to be more encouraged that we’d ever dreamed.


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