What’s Church For? Church as ‘Retirement Home’

When is the time to retire?

Here I am still ranting on about the elderly nature of my bit of God’s church. Last week I made a plea for the active recruitment of younger clergy: this week I want to talk about the other end: retirement. My thesis is simple: we don’t have a culture of retirement in the church, and this is profoundly unhealthy.

In a recent visit to the Church Times jobs website there were 49 British parish posts on offer, of which 11, over a fifth, were on a House for Duty basis. (In other words, for non-Anglicans, they were expecting mostly retired clergy to work for nothing but get free housing.) I don’t know what proportion of Anglican parishes are currently being run by ‘retired’ clergy, but I know that we’d collapse overnight if they were all suddenly raptured.

Of course for many retiring clergy the offer of a free house is a life-saver. If you’ve lived in tied accommodation all your life and haven’t somehow managed to get on the property ladder it can be a very difficult thing suddenly to acquire a retirement home. But I’m more concerned about what our increasing reliance on elderly people is doing to the church, particularly when coupled with our relative failure to recruit younger ordinands. I’m also concerned about what it is doing to them.

‘Ah, but …’ I hear you say. Surely there is no place in God’s church for retirement. Nowhere are we told that St Paul stopped gadding about and settled down to grow vegetable marrows. Good old Moses was still at it on his 120th birthday. I’ve heard all sorts of sermons on this very theme. But I think there is another side to this. For a start you can’t simply read a 21st century retirement lifestyle, complete with state pension, B&Q Diamond card and bus pass, back into biblical times. With a low life expectancy most people simply did not have much of a chance to grow old gracefully. And what about the claims of St Paul (or whoever wrote the Pastorals) in 2 Tim 4 that he had fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith, and was now awaiting the crown of righteousness in store for him? What about Jesus throughout Hebrews having finished his earthly work and sitting down? We’re not good at finishing things. We prefer facing a task unfinished.

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I once heard that in the USA 80% of those who resign from Christian ministry enter the construction trade. It was suggested that this is because at the end of a project you have something concrete (literally!) to show for it. But the work of Christian ministry rarely has these built-in end points. There is always more to do, and we are socialised into feeling guilty if we’re not busy doing it. Many of us have been so busy, and so bad at work-life balance, that once we retire we fear we’ll have nothing at all to live for. I once worked with a guy who had given his life on the mission-field in Asia. He was unmarried, had no close family, and in fact had no life at all outside his voluntary work for his parish church. Well into his 80s he was still going, although to be honest not particularly strong. Another parish I knew had a priest who had been there since before some watershed date and so did not have to retire ever. He was well into his 90s, and people were simply waiting for him to pop his clogs so that the church could move on.

So what should we do? I believe we should be helping Christian disciples to believe that retirement is an honourable estate, and preparing them more thoroughly to enter it healthily. We should mark it with a significant rite of passage after which life does not simply go on as before. We should make space for the considerable gifts which older people have to contribute to the life of a church, but without expecting them to run it themselves. We should find a way of ending our dependence on retired clergy to keep the C of E show on the road, and if that means some churches have to die, so be it.

Let me say again that chronological age is not to be equated exactly with youthfulness or otherwise. But I leave you with a question, one which I often ponder myself: when I do eventually get past my sell-by date, and am doing the church no favours by continuing, how will I know?

What’s Church For? Church as ‘Old Folks’ Club’ Part 2

Last week I ventured the suggestion that the church, or at least my Anglican bit of it, had an elderly culture, and I suggested that this was due at least in part to the fact that we don’t really feel happy with young leaders, and that we don’t have a convincing culture of retirement. I want to say more about both these issues, so let me begin with the first.

At least 20 years ago I heard a talk from some hierarch from Church House in which we were told that the C of E had come to its senses and ceased the policy of sending young ordinands back into the ‘secular’ world to get a bit of experience. Not surprisingly those who were told to ‘come back when you’re 35’ seldom did, as they had settled into life with a family, a career (and a decent salary to go with it) and so on. But as far as I can gather this policy is still alive and well. My friend Ian Paul discusses this very subject in his blog: http://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/encouraging-younger-ordinands/ . He quotes from Bob Jackson who claims that

the loss of young ordinands has been a major self-inflicted wound from which the Anglican Church is suffering and that the loss of young clergy has been a major cause of both the ageing and the shrinking of congregations.

The average age of ordinands is around 40, which means that after training and a curacy we don’t really have church senior leaders under 45. And as I said last week chronological age isn’t the whole story: at least some ordinands have been thoroughly socialised into Anglican elderliness long before they ever get let loose on a parish. If you think that ‘You shall go out with joy’ is the cutting edge of contemporary worship that’s a good warning sign.

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Key gatekeepers in the ordination process are the DDOs (Diocesan Directors of Ordinands), who apparently vary in their understanding of the need for ‘Fresh Expressions’ of church, or of the role of the newly created ‘Ordained Pioneer Ministry’ pathway to ordination. So the default mode can easily be that we continue to select and train those who ‘look the part’ in terms of inherited modes of church. Better safe than sorry.

The church is trying hard to promote younger vocations to ordained ministry, with its ‘Call Waiting’ website (callwaiting.org.uk) and regular open days and events. But in spite of some healthier statistics so far the landscape seems to be changing very slowly, and I wonder whether more might be done in terms of deliberate targeting of the kind of churches which are full of young people in their teens and twenties. Sadly many of these churches do not always work hard at celebrating their Anglicanism, which makes their potential ordinands an even riskier proposition, so there may be an even bigger job to be done in winning the hearts of younger people, to whom denominations mean very little, to the Anglican cause.

Of course this all sounds terribly ageist, and of course I’m not wanting to say that we only need young clergy. But I do believe that there is an immense imbalance to correct. This is not just about who feels called to ordination: this is about the heart of the church, which has grown old and tired and which desperately needs an injection of the sorts of things which younger people can bring. But I also believe that we need to work at the other end of the spectrum too, and think hard about the lack of a culture of retirement. Come back next week!

 

What’s Church For? Church as ‘Old Folks’ Club’ Part 1

OK, I’ve got my protective headgear on. This one’s going to get me into trouble. I want to have a bit of a rant about the culture of ‘church’ which, I have discovered, is overwhelmingly elderly. My text or icon for this is the word ‘refreshments’. Who under the age of 60 ever uses the word ‘refreshments’? Yet in church it’s a regular part of our vocab, and for me it has become symbolic of the whole way in which the church has an elderly culture and feel.

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‘So what’s so bad about being elderly?’ I hear you cry. Nothing at all. I know we have a cult of youth and beauty in our current Western culture, and I know that we have little respect for the experience and accumulated wisdom of older people. This is tragic. But I think there is all the difference in the world between being ‘old’ and being ‘elderly’. I got my B&Q Diamond card nearly two years ago, but I don’t yet feel anywhere near ready to be elderly. It’s all about mindset, not chronological age. We all know people who are 40 going on 70, and we all know amazing people in their 80s and 90s who listen to Dubstep and are most at home with teenagers. So please don’t read this as a slagging off of senior citizens. But it all becomes a problem when we grieve over the absence of young families and 30-somethings from our churches but continue to invite the congregation for ‘refreshments’ after the service. The whole mindset and culture of the church, or at least my Anglican bit of it, cries out ‘We’re a club for senior citizens!’

So how, apart from the R-word, does this elderly mindset manifest itself? Of course any culture will tend to perpetuate itself as it gathers to it those who feel comfortable with the status quo. But that means that we will have to work extra hard at communicating with a younger age-group. In one church I worked in some years ago we were beginning to engage with modern technology by recording talks and putting them up on the website. One member of staff used to announce regularly that people could listen to the service on cassette or ‘through some new-fangled electronic means which I don’t understand’. However much I tried to tell her that the world was ‘online’, there was a refusal to embrace what was obviously an unfamiliar piece of technology, and instead to turn it into a shared joke for others who weren’t quite up to speed with the 21st century. In fact what this did was to communicate, far more eloquently than any of my sermons ever did, and what it communicated was that we are a church for the elderly and proud of it. And then we wonder why we have no young families. Durr!

It isn’t just about technology: it’s about humour and what we expect people to find funny; it’s about references, or the lack of them, to the current TV programmes, films or chart-topping music; it’s about our social programmes and outings … there are so many manifestations of elderliness. But there is a deeper problem. Elderly culture is perpetuated by elderly people, and who are Anglican churches led by? You’ve got it in one. We have, I believe, two problems which contribute to this issue: we don’t fundamentally believe in having young leaders (I’ll defend this outrageous statement next time), and we have no real culture of retirement. I want to tackle these twin problems in future episodes of this blog, but before I end this one I need to affirm the vitally important role of older people in the life of the church. We all know faithful prayer-warriors, practical servants, wise counsellors and so on who might not be able to get physically to services any more but without whom we would be so much worse off. I’m not advocating a cull at age 50. But I do want to question the I’m sure unthought-out policies which as a church we seem to have fallen into, whilst at the same time bewailing the lack of contact with a whole generation of younger people. More next week, but for now I’m going to crawl into my bunker and hide.

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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What’s Church For? Church as ‘Big Business’

Is the Church a business? That’s a question which is asked from time to time, usually expecting the answer ‘No!’, and often in response to calls to become a bit more efficient in what we do. My boss when I was a member of Bishop’s Senior Staff in one diocese used to say to clergy that if they expected to get a pay cheque at the end of each month then Church was indeed a business! My answer is that church is certainly more than just a business, but that it cannot be less. So let’s have a look at this question, and what lies beneath it.

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We do have a bit of an aversion to thinking of Church in these terms. Whilst the C of E, with its sheer weight of bureaucracy and its establishment as the state church is probably a bit less nervous about this, other denominations would resist the idea strongly. I suspect that this is due to the image of the commercial world in which businesses are there solely to make money, where no-one cares about anyone else, where the art is to climb the corporate ladder as quickly as possible, never mind who you have to trample on to do so … you know all the caricatures. If that’s what business really is, then clearly the Church has a completely different set of values. But there may be other ways of looking at the commercial world, which can speak a lot more positively to the Church.

It may be that business is about getting the job done as effectively and efficiently as possible. It may be about requiring the right kinds of behaviour in order to get it done, and holding to account those who fail to act in the right ways. It may be about having such a firm belief in your product that you can’t help but sell it to those to whom it would be of benefit. And it may be about investing in employees so that they are mentored and coached to reach their full potential as members of the company. In that case Christians might not feel quite so negative about the idea that Church ought to look a bit more like this.

But it is my conviction that there is an even more compelling reason why Church ought at the very least to be businesslike. Quite simply, the bumbling inefficiency with which many churches run will in the end inhibit growth. We may put a high value on being a ‘happy family’ where relationships count for far more than effectiveness does (see my blog on ‘Church as Family’ here: https://revjohnleach.com/2014/03/05/whats-church-for-church-as-family/) but that approach is unlikely to grow the church beyond around 65 members. (It is worth saying that I am an unapologetic fan of numerical church growth: the only reason a church should be small is that it is constantly planting out new congregations.) Show me a seriously large church, and I’ll show you a church which takes seriously the business side of running itself. Somewhere like Holy Trinity Brompton is, with its ‘Alpha’ franchise, is a multi-million pound business, and as a result hundreds of thousands of people around the world have been touched by, and benefitted from, its ministry. That quite simply couldn’t have happened if it was run from a corner of the church hall by an administrator who could only just use a computer. With hundreds of employees (and the last I heard an HR department of four staff), there is a lot of business to take care of, and yet this church has not ceased being at its heart a parish church where the gospel is faithfully preached, the people are discipled, and God is worshipped.

Most local churches aren’t HTB, of course, but I can’t help but think that a more businesslike approach might do us all good. We have a product to ‘sell’ (faith in Jesus Christ), a workforce to sell it (the congregation), bills to pay, and a choice about whether we’re going to try to reach a greater proportion of the marketplace, or stay content with the ones we’ve got. So to invest in our image, our advertising, our buildings, our people, isn’t, surely, to sell our soul to the god of Mammon? Thinking like a business, of course, is not the magic ingredient to bring revival to our land, but I certainly reckon it could help.
What do you think?

What’s Church For? Luke 10 Church

Over the past few weeks I’ve looked at some different models and understandings of church, both biblical and not-quite-so. I haven’t anywhere near finished with church yet, and I’m aiming to get a bit more gritty as we continue this series, but first I thought I might try out on my dear readers a model which is certainly drawn from Scripture, and which I believe ought to capture the essence of what church is for.

I can’t claim this will be a scholarly exegesis of Luke 10, nor am I even sure that what I am about to describe suggests as clear a paradigm as I might wish it would, so I simply want to say that this model is to me a highly suggestive one, which we might do well to think about.

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The story goes that in the previous chapter Jesus has sent out his 12 disciples to drive out demons, heal the sick and preach the kingdom (in that order). Then at the start of Luke 10 he sends out a larger group, of 70 or 72 depending on which manuscripts you read. Again they were to heal the sick and proclaim the kingdom, although this time Jesus recognised in his instructions that there might be the possibility of them facing a bit of opposition (was this something he learnt from feedback when the 12 returned? Discuss).

Anyway, and here comes the church model, the 72 return in v 17, obviously delighted at how their deliverance ministry had gone. Jesus seems thrilled too, and in v 21, enabled by the Holy Spirit, he is filled with joy, not, interestingly, because some demons had been kicked out, but because this newly-formed team of beginners had learnt so much from the experience. But in between these two verses Jesus is found giving further teaching to the disciples, both to reassure them about their authority in him, but also to direct their enthusiasm more correctly. The section ends with him again telling his disciples how privileged they are to have been a part of this ministry.

That’s all we get, but bear with me, because it seems to me that this might have been more than a one-off occasion, and if so might provide a radical vision for the nature of church, or at least church services. Just imagine a Sunday morning meeting which looked like this:

Everybody gathers full of the Holy Spirit and joy because of what they have seen God doing through them during the previous week to heal, set free, and give new life. The church leader shares in their enthusiasm, but also gives them a bit more teaching. Then they’re all sent out again to see what God is going to do in the week ahead. The next Sunday they come and celebrate together again, receive more teaching, and so it goes on, as more and more people experience the new life of the kingdom of God.

The problem is, though, that most weeks when we gather we haven’t actually seen God do anything, nor, quite honestly, do we have any expectation that he’s going to do very much in the week ahead. So all we have left is ‘church’: the celebration is non-existent, so we just sing hymns and say liturgy; the teaching is pointless so we just listen to platitudes or academic theology, and then we go home to our lunch.

I’m not sure where we break into this cycle, but wouldn’t it be interesting to try?

What’s Church For? Church as Army

What’s Church For? Church as Army

I’ll make no bones about it: I have always thought of church as an army. I can’t help it, it’s just my age and my sex. I’m a bloke, and I just like the idea. In the old days, when we used to frequent such places, we would occasionally visit Blockbuster to choose a video for an evening off. As you can imagine my wife, being a girl (another quaint idea nowadays), headed straight for the romcom aisle to find a nice film about relationships and love. Meanwhile I went off to find something where Arnie or someone saved the world and blew up a load of stuff, or Beatrix Kiddo dismembered a few people with her Hattori Hanzo sword. So it’s not surprising that I tend to see church in similar ways, although with a bit less dismembering. We have a battle to fight, an Enemy to defeat, people to rescue, ground to take, poor people to feed and broken people to heal. Add to that the fact that one of the most formative periods in my Christian upbringing was the late 70s and early 80s, when we used to sing all those songs about treading down our enemies and entering the land in heavenly armour, calling on the principalities and powers to bow down and acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. Those were the days, before the political correctness police got their hands on Christian worship. So you can see where I get it from.

But is this a biblical picture of church? Did Jesus or Paul conceive of it in this way? As with some other models we’ve looked at, I can’t point you to a verse which is the equivalent of Paul saying ‘You are the Body of Christ’. But it does seem to me that the idea of battle, struggle and victory pervades the Scriptures. In the OT, which I’ll admit does contain some difficult passages about slaughtering people, God’s people were often to be found at war against someone or other, and often defending themselves. I love the throw-away comment in 1 Samuel 11 where David the king is staying in Jerusalem spying from his palace roof ‘at the time when kings go off to war’. There is an implied rebuke: if David had been out on the battlefield as he should have been, he would never have got into the mess he did with Bath-sheba and Uriah the Hittite. If as a church we really were fighting for the land we just wouldn’t have the time nor the inclination to argue about women bishops and all that other stuff which so preoccupies us. In the NT we’re told very clearly a) that we’re in a battle, and b) that it’s against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. So although the Bible doesn’t specifically call the church an army, it clearly thinks that there’s fighting to be done.

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A church which sees itself as an army will place a high value on things like prayer, training, learning study and discipline, because it will want to be as fit and as well-equipped as it can for the mission God has for it. It will also be purposeful, and is more likely to attract men. It will know how to mourn its defeats, and it will pick itself up, dust itself down and start all over again, because war is like that. And if it seems a bit of a harsh model after the nice family and haven ones we’ve been thinking about recently, remember that armies too have relationships, but they’re called ‘camaraderie’. There is no friendship like that with people we’ve fought alongside in battle, whose wounds we have bound up, and maybe even whose lives we have saved. I love the idea of church as a field hospital rather than a convalescent home, or even an old people’s home. This is the model for me!

Soon I’m going to move on from biblical images and look more closely at the church as it really is today. This will give me the opportunity for a bit more of a rant about some of the problems I think are facing us, and what we might do about them. But before that, next time – a ‘Luke 10’ model for church, and after that Church as Big Business.

What’s Church For? Church as Haven

Last week we looked at that most popular of models of church, ‘happy family’, and I suggested that this model was both unhelpful and probably unbiblical, at least as a way to think about the local congregation. This week’s model is different but related: church as ‘Haven’.

If you want a perfect illustration of the thinking behind this model, there is nowhere where it is stated more clearly that in a couple of lines from Henry Francis Lyte’s famous hymn Abide with me:

Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

This hymn, popular at funerals and, inexplicably, cup finals, is about the approach to the end of life. Lyte wrote it whilst busy dying of TB, and actually survived only a further three weeks after its completion. I’m not there yet myself, but I guess it reflects an old man’s bewilderment at a changing world, and his readiness to go to a better place (although Lyte was only 56 when he died). As such it popularises a spirituality common among older people, particularly in an age of rapid culture change and technological innovation. Everywhere I look I find a world changed beyond recognition, almost as though I were living in a foreign land, where I don’t speak the language or understand the culture. So thank goodness that in the shifting sands of life there is one place where I can look for unchanging succour. Church, so the reasoning goes, is meant to be the place where I can go to get my dose of the familiar, a place where I feel safe, where I understand the rules, a place where ‘naught changes’. My church is my safe haven against the changes and chances of life in a world where I no longer feel at home. ‘Change’, note, is synonymous with ‘decay’, rather than ‘growth’, ‘development’ or improvement.

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Whilst this sense of what the sociologists call ‘cultural dislocation’ is understandable, and while it is particularly understandable among a generation brought up in a stable world where change has suddenly began to spin out of control, it betrays an interesting and ultimately unhelpful view of church, and of God. Note first of all that Lyte sees God as the unchangeable point of reference; God, not his church. We have mistranslated his words to mean that church should never change, a sentiment which manifests itself most clearly in the matters of liturgy, music and buildings. God is indeed unchanging, but it has been said that ‘change is the angel of the unchanging God’. As we have already said in this blog God is actually a God of pilgrimage, a God who constantly leads his people purposefully forward. Sadly churches which see themselves as safe havens against change are often churches on their own deathbeds.

Of course we need to care pastorally for those nearing the end of their lives, and perhaps feeling disorientated and frightened. But to see a church as a safe haven from the storms of life is diametrically opposite to the pioneering and adventuring spirit to which I believe we are called. If we’re quoting hymns, I much prefer this one:

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew,
me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.   (Robert Bridges)

We need a God who guides us through change, not who saves us from it.

OT Lectionary Mar 16th Lent 2 Genesis 12:1-4a

Elsewhere in a different blog I’m writing about the church – what’s it’s for and how we can get it right or wrong (#whatschurchfor). This passage is absolutely key in understanding the state of the church today, and in order to grasp why I’ll need to take you back a few years to an evening spent in London with Chris my wife. We’d got tickets for some show or other, and we were going to eat first and then go on to the theatre. I have no remembrance at all about the show, or even what it was, but I’ll never forget the meal. We went to a well-know chain which wasn’t called ‘Simon’s’ but something in close partnership with him. We ordered our meal, which I have to say was very nice, and decided that if we were quick we just had time for afters. Trying to summon a waiter or waitress we found that all the staff seemed inexplicably to have disappeared. After about 20 minutes of hanging around we decided that we’d missed afters and we had to get going, so our quest became instead for someone who would give us our bill. We could easily have just walked out, and I have to admit we were tempted, but in the end I got up from our table and went hunting. Seated in a booth round the back somewhere about ten staff, all in their uniforms, were tucking into a meal. ‘Sorry to interrupt’ I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster, ‘but we need to pay and go.’ Grudgingly one of them got up and got our bill, which we paid in haste and just made it to the theatre in time. At least it saved us the cost of a tip.

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The Jews in the time of Jesus were very keen on being the ‘chosen people’, but what they hadn’t grasped was that they were chosen to be God’s waiters and waitresses to bring his blessings to the rest of the world. Abraham’s call in this passage was twofold: to be blessed, but also to be a blessing to all peoples on earth. And therein lies the problem: the Jewish nation wanted the first bit but forgot the second, a tradition in which much of the Christian church has been proud to follow. Whenever we claim exclusivity; whenever we operate as a holy huddle; whenever we subtly set up church structures which are hostile to newcomers or outsiders or people who are not like us, we are just like those staff who are happy to sit and feast themselves while others go unnoticed and hungry. This call, to remember that original commission to Abraham, both to be blessed and to bless, echoes through the rest of the Bible: most notably in Isaiah 49:6

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

When Simeon greeted the new-born Messiah he too knew that this was God’s call:

“My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32)

Since this narrow exclusivism and self-centred consumerism has been, and continues to be, such a perpetual problem for God’s people, we do well to look at our own church life very carefully, lest we find ourselves feasting at God’s table while others go hungry, wanting blessings but less keen on being blessings. It has long been my practice to remind people of this danger liturgically: whenever I give the liturgical blessing at the end of services I always use this adaptation of the usual words:

The blessing of God Almighty,

The Father, the Son,

and the Holy Spirit

be among you, remain with you always,

and make you a blessing to others.

What’s Church For? Church as Family

How many times have you heard (or indeed used) the term ‘The Church Family’?

I reckon that most churches have self-designated themselves as families at one time or another, and I can see why. It sounds like a great model of church – a happy family where we all love one another and are always nice to each other. A place where all can find a welcome, and where anyone can belong and be loved. Yet I want to suggest that this is one of the least helpful models of church. Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to find in the pages of scripture.

It is clear that God is pro-family: it isn’t good for people to be alone, and he sets the solitary in families (Ps 68:6). The term is used several times in the epistles (Gal 6:10, 1 Th 4:10, 1 Pet 2:17, 5:9 for example) but usually in the form of ‘God’s family’ or ‘the family of believers’. Never once is it used of a local church, but rather of all those, whether in a large region such as Macedonia, or in an even larger unspecified and therefore probably universal area. Christians who are adopted by God become members of his family, but that family is never seen as just a local congregation. The church universal may be a family, but the church local never is. It is fascinating that in 1 Tim 3 we’re told that a church leader should manage his own (human) family properly. If he can’t do that, how can he be expected to manage ‘God’s church’? Not ‘the church family’, as you might expect. The author deliberately shies away from using that phrase, which would have been a much more satisfying piece of writing.

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So why isn’t a local church meant to be a family? First of all because, unlike the picture of pilgrimage we used last week a family is essentially a purposeless thing. Families ‘are’: they don’t of necessity ‘do’ or ‘go’. They’re held together by relationships, not by purpose, and therefore are bodies much more attractive to women than to task-orientated men (I generalise, but I can defend this generalisation). Secondly, there is no growth imperative in the term ‘family’. In fact most families reach the time where they take deliberate steps to ensure that they don’t grow any bigger! Sadly many churches do too. Thirdly, families in real life tend to be selective in whom they let in. ‘PLUs’ are welcome (People Like Us), but there can be all sorts of devices and signals which say to others ‘Keep out!’ And if they are allowed in, it can be because they are poor and needy, and looking for welcome and shelter, rather than because they are fired up and ready to go on a mission. There’s the appeal to the feminine side again. Church as ‘family’ can quickly become church as ‘hospital’, where only needy people are made really welcome, and even then only some needy people. And finally families can be deeply dysfunctional, but are very adept at hiding it because keeping up the front of loving relationships is all-important, much more important in fact than honesty and genuine dealing with conflict. Church families, like human ones, can be deeply destructive and hurtful. Trust me, I know: I’m an out-of-work vicar!

I reckon we’d all do much better to remove this non-biblical term from our vocabulary. I’m going to suggest a better one to replace it, but first I’ll talk about one more model which I reckon is unbiblical and unhelpful. Next week: Church as ‘Haven’.