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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And now for something completely different … Preaching the OT

In a gathering of Anglican clergy I was mentioning that I tend to sit quite lightly to the lectionary for my preaching. One priest was indignant: at her church they stuck rigidly to the lectionary come what may because otherwise you only preached on purple passages, whereas with the lectionary people got the whole counsel of God. The conversation continued and within about five minutes someone said something about preaching from the Old Testament to which the very same lady replied ‘Of course we only ever preach on the Gospel reading for the day, and never the OT, Epistle or Psalm’. No-one even laughed, but that story demonstrates the idea that the only bits of the Bible worth giving time to are the Gospels.

So I thought it would be a good use of my blogging time if I were to attempt to put down some thoughts each week on the lectionary readings for the following Sunday, lest any preachers might find it helpful, but to concentrate only on the Old Testament, which, as my lecturer used to say at college, is the real Bible after all. I’m not intending to give an academic commentary, nor a devotional ‘blessed thought’, but rather to ask myself the question ‘If I were preaching on this, what might I say?’ so what better time to start than with the new year on Advent Sunday. My blogs won’t come after hours of learned study (not least because all my books are packed in boxes waiting to move) but as quick off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts. I hope, though, that they might be useful and inspirational for all that.

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Advent Sunday    Isaiah 2:1-5

 

Advent is a time for the future to become more real for us. In pastoral ministry I have seen terminally ill people go both ways. Some have a well-developed sense of heaven and the future, and can’t wait to get there, while others, although Christians, seem terrified of death and cling on to this life as though it were all there is. Today’s OT reading points us to a future, but not in a pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die way. It shows us something real and then calls us to action.

I’m a big fan of the Myers-Briggs psychological typing system. I can remember when I was first ‘done’ being put into groups of people with the same four letter type, in my case INTP. It was one of the most instantly comfortable groups I’ve been in, and when we were given the task of writing down what we would like the world to say to us it took us all of 10 seconds for us to agree ‘You were right all along!’

This reading, part of a vision of the future given to the prophet, is about the world saying to God ‘You were right all along!’ People and nations who were once hostile will now come streaming into God’s presence to learn from him, and the result will be a better world, free from conflict and hostility, violence and warfare. It’s a great vision. I can remember being excited at a conference years ago by a speaker telling us he was praying for the time when the Prime Minister would ring up the Archbishop of Canterbury and say ‘Tell me what to do, O man of God!’ Something in that caught my imagination, and Isaiah’s vision resonates with that.

But the real question for any sermon is ‘So what? What do we do about that now?’ Isaiah tells us two things: learn and walk. Take time to get to know God and his ways better now, and make sure you put into practice what you’ve learnt. One of my favourite church straplines is ‘Meet Friends; meet God; live life better’. That seems to me to sum it all up: that way we’ll be part of the solution, not the problem.