The church of 2030 starts here

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 church-technology-of-the-futurerevealing 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.future-vision

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.

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Our church I didn’t go to

derelict church

I am in a dilemma which has caught me by surprise. The church in the village in which I grew up is going to close. It is a small church in a small village of perhaps 120 houses. When I lived in the village 20 – 30 years ago the congregation was small. On some Sundays it now numbers 3.

When we first moved to this village in 1979 the pub had already closed down but there was a village shop, a garage, a village hall and the church. By the time I left home both shop and garage had closed and village life, though strong, centred around the hall, the annual village fete and the church.

In the churchyard are now the remains of my grandmother, my father and my sister. I never went to this church and nor did my family – it was our church that we didn’t go to. But it was, as for so many other villagers, our church. It holds a significance and a memory that unites me with all those with whom we shared life in those years. And so as I hear news of its demise I feel that this is undoubtedly a loss to a village and community which is slowly losing all of the communal resources that quietly make community life what it is.

And yet…there is a reality here that can’t be ignored. The 120 houses of this village were all leafleted and all given an opportunity to offer time and skill to keeping the church a village church. Only 3 people responded. The cost of maintaining and heating this building, even for the occasional service, on the basis of an electoral roll in single figures, is not sustainable. The local vicar has this, plus another 7 or 8 churches in the area to oversee. The clergy resource is being spread ever more thinly across these small villages and their historic buildings. This makes clergy less and less effective and more and more exhausted and liable to stress and burnout.

Since leaving home and the village church which I didn’t go to I have found faith and a vocation as a vicar in the Church of England. I have ministered so far in urban settings and now lead a ministry that is seeking to create church communities amongst people who are unlikely to engage with traditional forms of church. At present, certainly in my part of the CofE, I am seen as something of an experiment. I am not paid by my Diocese. And the future of the work I do and the kind of church communities that are emerging within the wider institution of the church is far from clear.

I am a little surprised then about my feelings toward the closure of a church I never went to. Except that perhaps it connects with the feelings so many feel toward the gradual erosion of something precious in villages up and down the country, the loss of a way of life that has survived for centuries. Even I am open to a dose of nostalgia for something that seemed boring when I was growing up, but which I now realise has immense value.

And yet… 2 principles tell me that this is the right thing to do, and indeed that we ought to be braver and do it more.

  1. The people of God are nomadic not sedentary and their gathering places should reflect that.

God’s people have always been sojourners, nomads, people called from place to place. We need structures. We need places to gather and places that can focus our worship and our sense of God’s presence. But once those places become so rooted, so fixed, that we cannot move on we risk losing something of who we are as God’s people. We are much more people of the tent than the temple – when we are truly living up to our call.

  1. The church is ultimately future oriented because it is animated by God’s Holy Spirit.

It is the Holy Spirit that births the church and then sends it out into the world and into the future. Of course there is an important dimension of celebrating and reflecting on the work of God in the past, but only is so much as we can be encouraged to move on into the future, in our own walk with God and as communities in mission. The Holy Spirit is sent into the world and then calls us to where He already is – so we are constantly moving into the place and time where God already is – not back to somewhere where God has been.

So in a small way I have to do what I believe the church constantly needs to do in order to continue to fulfil its call to be nomadic people of the Spirit – let go of the old structures, listen to the Spirit and move into God’s future. This is a death and so will be accompanied with pain and sadness. But that is what we must do if we are to truly be the church we are called to be.

Some might say that my old village church will just turn into a symbol of the demise both of the church and of the community. Well, perhaps it will. But in a world longing for community, but sometimes struggling to know how to recreate it, it must surely be an enlivened church that, listening to God’s Spirit, will discover new and more relevant ways of building community and creating new communities of faith in our historic rural villages.