In my penultimate (I think) gaze into my crystal ball to see what the church in 20 years’ time might look like I want to reflect on a phrase which I hear someone say many years ago. Sadly I can’t attribute it to anyone because I can’t remember, but you can have the phrase anyway: ‘A church is more likely to grow if it is perceived by the community in which it is set as “useful”’. In other words a siege mentality, or that of a ‘holy huddle’ doing really spiritual things, or indeed a deep hostility to the ‘pagans’ out there, are likely to militate against significant church growth. Like many a wise saying, it is blindingly obvious once you’ve heard it, but sheer genius on the part of whoever first articulated it.
I’ve already mentioned my strap-line for church ‘Communities more like heaven through people more like Jesus’, and I do detect in the church a growing understanding that our ministry is to get stuck into the life of the communities in which we are set to make them better and healthier places. A recent survey in the Diocese in which I now work has identified all kinds of community work going on in local churches, and I suspect that the dawning understanding of their role vis-à-vis the community has opened up all kinds of opportunities. However, I have a fear: in our grasping of the community dimension of our ministry, we could so easily lose our evangelistic cutting edge. Indeed I believe we often have.
I can’t say with any honesty that I know what this dimension will look like in 20 years’ time, but I am hoping and praying for a pendulum swing and some kind of an equilibrium in the middle. The church tradition in which I grew up was hot on powerful preaching, wonderfully experiential worship and formative discipleship, but if I’m honest a bit weak on what we would disparagingly call the ‘social gospel’. Indeed I can remember many self-affirming discussions during my youth-group years on ‘evangelism versus social concern’, as though it were a competition, or a choice to make. Our church was definitely of the ‘evangelism’ persuasion, and looked down piously on the woolly liberals who were no better than social workers and who were simply giving people a more comfortable ride to hell.
The pendulum has swung, and now we really do seem to have cottoned on to the fact that we are in the business of redeeming all creation, not just helping individuals give their hearts to Jesus. But in the process I can’t help but wonder how much of our cutting edge we have lost. In trying to serve people, and especially needy people, in our communities, have we lost sight of our calling to ‘save sinners’ and ‘command all people everywhere to repent’ (Ax 17:30)?
I do believe that the vague and broad term ‘mission’ is beginning to give way to a greater emphasis on ‘evangelism’, not as the only task of mission but certainly a central one. I have mentioned before an important paper from Steven Croft, the Bishop of Sheffield, on re-emphasising evangelism. My hope and prayer for the church of the future is that we will use our new confidence in serving the communities in which we are set to begin again to introduce people to the One in whose name we serve them.