I recently received an email to say that the course I had booked on had to be cancelled due to lack of interest. The course was entitled ‘Preparing for 2030: Mission, Megatrends and the Future of the Church Conference’. And I guess I thought it was perhaps revealing that a course looking at the kind of world we will be ministering in in 15 years’ time did not garner enough support. Some will argue that the course was fishing in a pretty limited pool given that a large proportion of current church leaders in the Diocese where I work will be retired in 15 years’ time. There is also the perennial issue of encouraging busy clergy away from their context to engage in the important-but-not-urgent stuff of ongoing learning.
Even so, that a course, oriented so clearly towards the future mission of the church, could not attract enough participants to run suggests to me that we have a problem. We are not sufficiently concerned about the future of the church to study what the future might look like. We are not sufficiently concerned about the future of the church to seriously consider what changes need to made now to plan for it. Perhaps, even worse, we are not sufficiently aware of the rapidly changing world we are in to see that unless we study the future we are forever living and ministering in the past.
In periods of rapid change any organisation needs to be extremely adaptable in order to remain effective. But to be able to adapt we need to be willing to adapt. And to be willing to adapt there needs to be a commitment to it. Gaining that kind of commitment requires some work, the telling of truth about the present as well as any casting of vision for the future. To some extent we all hold onto the present as the last remaining vestiges of a warmly held past and we do not let go easily. Adapting, changing and orienting ourselves for the future requires three things: reality, relinquishment and renewal. All too often to we clamour for renewal without first doing the work of enabling one another to face reality and relinquish the past.
As part of my ministry recently I have been meeting with a small group who represent a new worshipping community within a local parish setting. The new community was deliberately set up in the hope of engaging new people. Many of the group are committed to the future of the church but have also been a part of this parish for many years. They remember the past with great fondness. I have spent the past 6 months exploring mission for their context with this group. However, it has been hard for our discussions not to be drawn back into concerns for the church, that is the church building, a beautiful old building, devoid of heating, in completely the wrong place for its community. The last time we met however there seemed to me to be a turning point. I presented them with some harsh realities about the place and identity of the church in modern society and culture. I presented them with the concept of a church in exile; on the edge, no longer at the centre, no longer asked for its opinion, or respected for its views, no longer (physically or otherwise) at the heart of community life and able to reside there and see people come to it. As this picture developed and we discussed its merits, the mood in the room grew gloomy, then resistant and then finally resigned. It was a hard truth, but it was nevertheless the truth. The church of Christendom, able to command such an influential and prominent place in society and culture, has gone. We are in exile. And the sooner we face up to the reality of that and relinquish whatever false and nostalgic identities we have for our church the better.
Much as the exilic prophets did for Israel, telling them the truth of the disastrous nature of the situation they were in, church leaders must do for their worshipping communities. Unless we embrace the reality of our identity as people in exile we are never going to orient ourselves to be the sort of Christian communities we need to be now, or in the future. We need a conversion. We need to relinquish one paradigm and positively accept the reality of another, one where we must learn again what it means to be faithful witness to Christ in a culture that is not oriented by his message or ethics in any substantial way.
Recently Archbishop Justin Welby, speaking at the recent New Wine leaders gathering said this:
“I want to say to you today that I believe from the bottom of my heart that the long years of winter in the church, especially in the Church of England, are changing. The ice is thawing, the spring is coming. There is a new spring in the church.”
Encouraging words. But I am not sure many are truly aware of the reality of the winter we are emerging from. Or if they are, they look nostalgically to a balmy summer of yesteryear to inspire any hope for a new season. Some will not be able to spot a coming spring because, as I believe, it will look very different from the new season that might hope for. Renewal is not a return to some recycled past. Renewal, by its very nature, is the unexpected wonderful new reality of God’s inbreaking into his world and his people.
The concept of exile is powerful truth for us. Like Israel of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem we must face up the reality that the old dispensation has gone. We must learn to live in a new land and embrace being strangers and aliens instead of lords and leaders. To do this we must face the reality of our identity and relinquish hopes and visions inspired by warm feelings for the past. Only then might we begin to embrace renewal, the new thing that God is doing in his church to which he invites us to participate. 2030 may seem a long way away, but it starts now, with a conversion to a new way of seeing, a new paradigm of church identity and mission where we embrace the truth of our identity as exiles in a foreign land.