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.