What’s Church For? Taking a bullet for Jesus

I was asked some while ago by a follower of this blog to comment on what I though the church might be like in 20 years’ time, and I’ve been giving considerable thought to that question. I decided that now might be a good time to address it. In spite of coming out as one on one of those silly facebook quizzes, I don’t claim to be much of a prophet, but I do have some thoughts which may or may not turn out to have been inspired. So I want to take a few weeks, under the category of ‘What’s church For?’ to take a glimpse as far as I can into the general future. I want to begin this week with an old joke.

The vicar is just about to launch into ‘The Lord be with you’ at the start of the service, when the west doors of the church burst open and in come three men, all clothed in black, and with black balaclavas over their faces, carrying AK47s. Grabbing the attention of the congregation (which isn’t too difficult if you behave and dress like that) the leader shouts out ‘Anyone who isn’t willing to take a bullet for Jesus, get out now!’

As you might imagine there is a mass exodus from the church, but a few determined (or stupid) souls remain firmly in their seats, praying fervently. The gunmen then fire a few warning shots into the air, and shout again ‘We really mean it! If you’re not willing to take a bullet for Jesus, get out now while you still have the chance!’ Almost everybody leaves at this point. The leader of the gunmen strides up to the vicar at the front, looks him straight in the eyes, and says ‘OK Father – that’s got rid of all the hypocrites: you can start the service now’.

As I gaze into my (figurative, of course) crystal ball, I wonder whether this scenario might actually tell us a bit about what is going on in the church, and where we might be headed. I have recently moved to a new, largely rural diocese in which the vast majority of churches are small, struggling, and grouped together in impossible benefices. Not surprisingly people are by and large elderly, discouraged, and worn out from the burdens of administration and fund-raising to keep ancient buildings standing, even though many of them have very few actual services.

File:Cullompton , Countryside looking toward St Andrew's Church - geograph.org.uk - 1217350.jpgThis is not, of course, about hypocrisy, but I do predict that the time will come when the generation which values its church culture enough to keep on living sacrificially for it will pass away and much of the C of E will simply cease to exist. Younger generations, those who are so absent from the life of the church, have a very underdeveloped sense of duty compared to their parents and grandparents, and I predict that a lot fewer dead horses will continue to be flogged in the future. I suspect that the hierarchy, who have worked so hard at maintaining if not a priest then at least some ministry in every parish will simply admit defeat and finally begin to think seriously about new shapes of Christian witness, particularly in rural areas.

Church will only happen in places where people really mean it, are achieving some degree of success in their Christian mission, and have the resources to carry on and the vision to draw new people into their life. The church will be slimmer but hopefully fitter, and maybe ready to begin missionary work again to convert our nation to Christ.

OT Lectionary Aug 10th Trinity 8 I Kings 19:9-18

Getting back on your feet

 

Spiritual depression is a common experience among leaders in God’s church, and in a strange way it’s encouraging to watch Elijah going through it. It reminds us that even the great heroes of faith experience bad times, so what chance have I got of escaping unscathed? The Bible always paints ‘warts-and-all’ pictures of its characters, which is what makes the wartless Christ stand in such stark contrast.

 

But even more interesting is to watch how God deals with Elijah as he hits his all-time low. Those of us who are pastors have a lot to learn as we see God being pastoral to his broken servant. He begins very practically: the opposition and threats have got to the point where Elijah, who was once unafraid to stride into the king’s presence and denounce him, is now on the run from a nasty woman. Even the best of us can suddenly find it all too much. God begins his therapy rather as in an episode of EastEnders: whatever the crisis, the first response is to put the kettle on. So he provides rest, food and drink – those practical necessities which those of us who have been depressed can so easily overlook or lose interest in. But then he takes him on a journey: for 40 days Elijah has the time and space to mull over what has been going on.

 

Next God listens: Elijah gets the opportunity to tell his story, not once but twice (and maybe more). Like the Ancient Mariner he has to repeat his tale in order to get it out into words, and God listens patiently. But then he speaks, and in doing so he brings Elijah three different areas of reassurance.

 

First he tells him that he is still God. He confronts his sense of powerlessness. The heavenly pyrotechnics are designed to restore Elijah’s sense of perspective about where power really lies, while the ‘still, small voice’ reminds him that it isn’t all about displays of power.

 

Secondly he tells him that he (Elijah) is still important, confronting his sense of worthlessness. Having lived through a time when I was constantly being told that I was useless and that nobody liked me I found it immensely healing to be reminded by friends of my value. But this isn’t mere words: Elijah is recommissioned to get stuck in to his work again, plunging straight back into the political arena with his prophetic anointing.

 

And thirdly God tells him some truths, confronting his loss of perspective and isolation. He may feel alone, but there are plenty of people still with him, even if at times they are a bit silent and distant when he needs support the most. And as an added bonus God gives him an apprentice, both to share the load and to assure him that the prophetic work will go on past his incumbency.

 

God, the master pastor, gently leads Elijah back to health, and I’m sure he was stronger and more resilient as a result of his weeks out of action. I also note with interest that not once does God tell him to praise the Lord and join in the worship-songs. Maybe his church has something to learn from him!

 

Called to the Ministry

This is a brief extract from chapter 4 of God’s Upgrades … My Adventures published by Authentic Media

I began to attend not one but two very different Anglican churches. The first, St Laurence’s, to which I was invited by a friend’s girlfriend, was what you might call ‘Anglo-catholic’. Of course such terms meant nothing to me at that stage, but it basically meant that they had Communion every week, as the main service, rather than once a month tagged on afterwards as we did at the Baptist church. The priests, who were called ‘Father’, dressed up, there was lots of smoke, and people sang stuff instead of saying it. It seemed a huge distance from any kind of Christianity I’d ever experienced before, and I hated it with such a passion that I had to go back the following week in order to experience the wonderful sense of outrage over again. Soon I found I was hooked. Something in me also appreciated their great patronal festival celebrations. Laurence had been a deacon in a church in Rome somewhere who for a bit of cheek to the Emperor had been martyred in AD 258 by being roasted on a grid over hot coals. So each August the congregation celebrated their patron saint with a great barbecue, which seemed somehow both appropriate and amusing.

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St Laurence’s was Sunday morning, but Tuesday evenings were very different. Some other friends invited me to a different church which was creating a bit of a stir because they had been ‘renewed by the Holy Spirit’. The vicar was a guy called Trevor Dearing, and St Paul’s, I was later to discover, was one of the early pioneers of a new movement called ‘charismatic renewal’. It was a very different experience from my Anglo-catholic church. For a start you had to get there an hour or so before it started if you wanted a seat. There was no liturgy, and certainly no smoke, but there was plenty of fire, as the Holy Spirit was welcomed to save, baptise, heal and deliver people. The music consisted of short Bible-based ‘choruses’; there was usually a period of ‘singing in tongues’, there was a sermon which called people to be saved, baptised in the Spirit, healed or delivered from evil spirits, and then there was a time for people to go forward and receive prayer. It was crowded, lively, at times noisy, and I hated it. In fact I hated it even more than St Laurence’s, because apostate though that might have been, at least it wasn’t scary. And yet I found myself going back for more. Much later I was to discover a theologian called Rudolph Otto, who talked in a famous book about the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, or the ‘fascinating but terrifying mystery’ of God[i]. There is something about him, said Otto, which scares the wits out of us but keeps us coming back for more. That was certainly true of me at this period in my life.

[i] Otto, R The Idea of the Holy (London: Oxford University Press, 1923) You can now read this landmark book online at http://archive.org/stream/theideaoftheholy00ottouoft#page/n3/mode/2up