What’s Church for? Expecting the Unexpected

I have tried over the past few weeks to look into the future of church in the UK, and I’m very aware of the woeful inadequacy of this enterprise. I’ve suggested some directions which we might be headed in, but at the end of the day I wouldn’t be that surprised if all we see is a bit more of the same: marginalisation by the secular media, decline, greying and a lot of death. However, I am encouraged by a physicist named Thomas Kuhn, into whose hands I commend you as I close this mini-series of blogs.


Kuhn is famous for his ‘paradigm-shift’ theory. To understand him, allow me to take you back for a moment into the 1960s, and into the subterranean lair of an evil James Bond villain. All along one side of the cave is a huge computer, with lights flashing and tapes spinning, a machine with the aid of which the villain is planning to take over the world. Now, imagine that I asked you what a computer twice as powerful would look like in the future? The obvious answer is twice the size, with twice the number of flashing lights and twirling tapes. In the fact the real answer is that it would look like your mobile phone: in fact your phone is probably already hundreds of times more powerful. Technology, said Kuhn, rarely proceeds in a straight line. There come moments when some new invention radically alters everything, and a paradigm shift leads to a brand new direction. The invention of the microchip provided one such paradigm shift, such that miniaturisation, not growth, is the expected direction of progress. Nanotechnology, and work on single molecular circuits, mean that even further miniaturisation is on the horizon. But when Wikipaedia claims that ‘this miniaturization is the ultimate goal for shrinking electrical circuits’ it is reckoning without some further and as yet unimagined paradigm shift.


So much for physics, but the same can be true of history. Every now and then there will be some kind of a paradigm shift which means that a linear progress will no longer be the way forward. And in my experience the same is true of God. In spite of the suspicion with which the church often treats the notion of an ‘interventionist God’ the Bible is full of stories of God breaking into history to change everything. Freedom for slaves in Egypt; exile for a complacent and idolatrous nation; a Messiah on a cross; fire from heaven; all these are examples of God doing ‘a new thing’ which means that nothing is the same again. In more modern times the coming of the Holy Spirit on a group of farmers in Topeka, Kansas and many other revivals and renewals of the church have been both unexpected and powerfully disorientating for the church, but have sent us off in some amazing new directions.


All of which is a way of saying that I hope to the bottom of my being that the so-called ‘predictions’ I have made will prove to be complete nonsense, because by the time twenty years have passed God will have broken in, shaken up his church beyond recognition, and we’ll all be off in a completely new direction.


I went through a stage of reading all I could about great revivals of history, and like many I found myself praying ‘Lord, do it again!’ I have now learnt that a far better prayer is ‘Lord, do something new!’

What’s Church for? Useful and Sharp

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.


What’s Church For? Freshening Up

I suggested in the last blog on this thread that the church of the future is looking as though it will be a church of prayer rather than presumption, slimmed down but more ready for action and more aware of its desperate need of God’s grace to achieve anything at all. I also noted some signs of new life, which I want to explore this time.

 The term ‘Fresh Expressions’(‘FXs’) was coined 10 years ago after the publication of the Mission-shaped Church report in 2004, and it represents the fact that official policy in the C of E is to see ourselves as having two strands, or a ‘mixed economy’ of church life, the stuff we’ve all been used to for centuries and some new things which might look very different. This thinking goes further back to the work of my old boss Robert Warren on church in ‘inherited’ and ‘emerging’ modes. So what has emerged?

 There are a significant number of FXs in the UK, some quite honestly looking fresher than others, and a huge amount of research going on into their style and effectiveness in making disciples for Jesus Christ. They have a good-looking website at http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/home and several books and DVDs, and the Church Army’s Wilson Carlile College in Sheffield is doing sterling work in researching and documenting FXs. Alongside this mixed economy of church there is also now a mixed economy of leadership, with ordinands plumping either for traditional or ‘pioneer’ training. All this is very encouraging, and the statistics show that FXs are already having a profound impact on the life of the church.

FX logo But I want to suggest that we are not out of the woods yet, and that we have a lot lot more work to do before we can win our nation for Christ. From personal experience, while I am very excited about the rise of this new ‘movement’, I’m just not sure yet that the C of E really gets it. I bear the scars of having been bullied out of a parish where one (among several) issues was the hostility of some to an FX which we planted to reach out to new families. As FXs go it was pretty tame and trad, but it was resented by ‘the main church’, was seen as divisive, as not valid as an expression of church, and as outside the ‘control’ of the PCC. The fact that we were seeing new young families finding a spiritual home in an otherwise pretty elderly church did not seem to matter: the problem was that they were not joining in with our highly trad services, but going off to do their own strange things in the church hall. I have heard this story repeated again and again: the mixed economy tragically seems to be between those trying to do new things to win currently excluded groups to Christ, and those who simply don’t get it. At best some FXs are looked on with suspicion by Christians: at worst they can be actively persecuted.


 The same is true of pioneer training. One such ordinand has told me that while some of what he is getting is great, and very helpful to him, the way he is misunderstood by the trad ordinands with whom he is rubbing shoulders betrays a gross ignorance and deep suspicion of this new strand. And he feels misunderstood by the ‘system’ as a whole: fresh expressions of church require fresh expressions of leaders to pioneer them, but they also require fresh expressions of DDOs (those who help ordinands through the vocation and selection procedures), and fresh expressions of BAPs (a residential where the fate of hopeful ordinands is sealed). While our establishment mind-set is still about selecting traditional clergy who are going to end up as normal parish priests we still have a very long way to go. Something far more radical is needed, and twenty years may or may not do it.

What’s Church For? Bringing the House Down

In my attempt to take a prophetic glance into the future I suggested last week that in twenty years’ time, on current projections, there would be many local congregations which have simply ceased to exist due to the elderly faithful dying without managing to replace themselves, and dioceses and equivalent manifestations of ‘the hierarchy’ giving up the battle to keep crumbling buildings standing for no particular reason save that of history. This may be overly pessimistic, but I simply can’t see any way of keeping the show on the road. I think complacency will gradually give way to realism, and we’ll come to the point, like Samson, of acknowledging that we can’t simply ‘go out as before’ – our strength has gone.

 File:Alek Rapoport - Samson Destroying the House of the Philistines - 1989.jpg

But, to stay with Samson for a moment, I think there is better news. Here he is, in prison, degraded, blind, wheeled out to entertain the people, who love a good bit of cruel mockery. But from the depths of his despair he does something which we have never seen him do before in the entire story – he prays. ‘Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more!’  He has lived his entire life in presumption, but now, degraded and with nothing left of himself, he finally reaches the point where he recognises his utter and complete helplessness and his total dependence on God. That appears to be just the kind of prayer God loves, because he answers it and a great victory is won.


I’ve written before on my hope that we’ll see our great church broken and weeping before God, and I suspect it will take a lot more than 20 years for us to reach that point, but I do believe that there are signs on the wind of a move in that direction. My sense is that the C of E is a more godly church than it was 30-odd years ago when I was ordained: there is a lot less posturing and immorality, and most church leaders really do seem to be holy men and women trying their best to do their job well, even if they feel a bit lost and bewildered by the state of the nation. I sense that we’re becoming sick and tired of arguing about sexuality; that we are less ready to write off those of different churchmanships from us as not quite the spiritual ticket; that we are becoming more concerned about mission than about internal politics, even if we’re a bit uncertain about what ‘mission’ actually means.


Anything which takes us in the direction of an awareness of our own uselessness and of our total dependence on the grace of God is to be welcomed, and I believe that God is beginning to get us to the point where we might be able to pull down a few pillars on the heads of our corrupt and godless society. But I suspect we need a lot more and a lot more desperate prayer before we really can see the temple of our greedy and consumerist nation brought down.


In the meantime, there are other signs of hope as we see new things springing up in the church. More of that next time!

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.

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.


What’s Church For? A Job for Life?

Should locally licensed ministers have a job for life?

Last time I had a moan about the lack of a clear culture of retirement from Anglican ministry. I want to stay with that idea but come at it from a slightly different angle, and do some thinking about the expectations of lay ministers who have been ordained and/or licensed to a particular parish. Let’s hear about the fictional, though all too real, parish of St Mildred’s Newtown.

In the past St Mildred’s was a moderately thriving church, with well-ordered Book of Common Prayer worship and good community involvement. In its heyday there was an emphasis on vocations which was thought to be highly successful, in that it produced five home-grown Readers and two Self-supporting ordained ministers.

But now the church has grown tired and elderly. The Readers are all in their sixties, one of the SSMs is over 70 and has Permission to Officiate, and the other is in her mid-60s but not in good health. They are all dearly loved by the congregation who have seen them nurtured and growing in their ministries down the years, and who enjoy the pastoral care they provide.

Then the vicar announces his departure to a new parish. As people begin to think towards the future, and set about preparing a parish profile, it becomes clear that they desperately need to attract some young families. They note the research which says that senior ministers are likely to attract people within ten years either side of their own age, so without being in any way ageist they set about the search for a young priest with loads of experience and wisdom, but who is lively and young-at-heart.

File:U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Marshall with the 1st Battalion, 45th Engineer Battalion, 157th Infantry Brigade, First Army Division East, his wife, Amanda and their young family, celebrate the holidays early 131208-Z-IB445-027.jpgJim is eventually appointed. It is his first incumbency, having served a curacy in a thriving church in a nearby diocese. He relishes the challenge of turning around the decline which has characterised St Mildred’s for decades, and brings loads of exciting ideas. He begins to get to know the team he has inherited, and relationships are cordial. But as time goes by it becomes apparent that they don’t quite understand what he is trying to do. If only we could get back to the days of reverent BCP worship, they believe, all our problems would be solved. Similarly they show little concern for Jim’s desire to bring the church into a digital age: they don’t see the need for a website or a facebook page. Soon it becomes abundantly clear to Jim that the team he has inherited have become the single biggest obstacle to moving the church forwards, and of course they have the support of the congregation who, whilst wanting to attract young families, have no idea of the cost and change involved in doing so. Jim tries to win people over, but the opposition is very strong, and is centred around those who ought to be his closest allies. And the worst thing is that there simply is no mechanism for moving them on and building his own team.

Of course this is a made-up story, and nothing like it ever exists in real life, but isn’t it time that we began to think seriously about inherited teams, those whose focus is in the past rather than in the future, and ways for mission-shaped ministries to grow without opposition from other leaders? Are locally licensed ministers really in a job for life, or might it be appropriate for them to move around if they can’t grasp the vision of new senior leaders? One church leader reported saying to his disgruntled colleagues ‘I’m so sorry that you have been unable to catch the vision of what this church must become’. We shouldn’t say that but then leave them in place as leaders of the opposition.