On the Outside, looking in?

It is interesting how spending time in another country can give you a new perspective on your home culture. Since visiting North Africa, a region with a small and struggling Christian witness, it has been revealing to review the nature of the Church’s engagement with the post-Christian culture in Britain…

It is taken for granted that those involved in mission in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, would seek to learn the language, avoid the pitfalls of certain clothing or gestures and search for cultural reference points in communication. Thankfully, most people and organisations with a heart to see the Church grow in regions where there is little recognisable Christian structure in society are aware of this. They are at pains to assist in building churches that reflect local leadership, local patterns of worship, music and organisation.

The shock on reentering British society is how little these lessons are apparent in the British church.

Mike Riddell, in his book, “Threshold of the Future”, offers this stark analysis:

“Never before has the church faced a post-Christian culture; one which has known and dismissed Christianity as an option. The Western church is not facing incomprehension or opposition so much as a massive indifference.”

This massive indifference is behind the collapse in church attendance across Britain and the financial crises facing many established denominations and mission societies. Forty years ago, a church may have rested secure in the knowledge that if it preached a “biblical gospel” message and made a short impassioned plea to conversion, then growth would follow.

Perhaps twenty years ago, we may have felt more confident coupling that same message with an invocation to the Holy Spirit to confirm the validity of those words with signs and wonders.

Today, we are probably less assured though we may dangle a meal and a weekend away as part of a ten-week course into the bargain.

I caricature, and actually the trends in church attendance perhaps extend back beyond a hundred years. But this is where we are now: old structures of leadership, worship, building, communication and discipleship are failing to arrest the haemorrhage from the Church in the West.

Gerard Kelly presents this challenge:

“Our strategy must not be for survival but for rebirth. Not the Church we know today protected into its old age, but a new Church born in the fields of tomorrow – a Church that springs up from the ground on which, unknowing, we have thrown seeds. The Church of the future will arise not where the pillars of our certainties are grounded, but where the seeds of an ancient gospel reroot.”

Emerging church groups are just such seeds. These seeds do not necessarily see themselves as part of a wider momentum and, on the surface, many of them have little in common, except an embrace of the radical. The radical, as Mike Riddell points out, seeks to “return to the roots of the tradition”, “does not dismiss what has gone before, but from it uncovers the heart of God”.

It is instructive to recognise some of the trends around us in society that have engendered this need to rethink and reconstitute the nature of Church. Sweden’s self-proclaimed “funky academics” Ridderstrale and Nordstrom identify the three main drivers behind societal change as digitisation, globalisation and deregulation. These three motors are fundamentally altering values, attitudes and relationships.

Sociologists and businesses alike are alive to a paradigm shift in worldviews in the West that undermines trust in previously revered public bodies such as government, the judiciary and the Church. As technological change spirals exponentially, values as well as things become disposable. While the levels of convenience and comfort in the West are unprecedented, they have actually failed to deliver a world safe from ecological meltdown or a sure sense of identity and purpose.

The once confident dictum that hard work, a good education and a career in a reputable firm or profession would provide a job for life no longer holds water and people under 35 are looking ahead to multiple careers, ongoing education and no retirement whatsoever. The “funky business gurus” put it this way:

“In the recent past our roles were pre-defined. The Church or the corporation provided the historical script. No more. To be successful in a world of improvisational theatre, you have to ask yourself questions. You have to know yourself and your objectives. It is Management By Objectives for individuals. Defining yourself is the only means of creating a good life.”

In days past, we defined ourselves by our class, our job, our hometown or estate. These days, we define ourselves by what we consume. Our identity, our cultural comfort blanket, is prey more to the campaigns of GAP, Quicksilver and Toyota than Church, Trade Union and family heritage.

This confusion has at its essence an innate pessimism about the future. The human race that sent men to the moon also constructed the most elaborate system for wiping out 6 million Jews in our grandparents’ lifetime. The scientists that have all-but wiped out smallpox have failed to cure cancer and politicians that have overseen the collapse of the Berlin Wall have colluded in the ongoing oppression of millions in the South. If modernism was a clarion-call to a better brave new world, the post-Christian age is a mute whimper of hopelessness and a retrenchment to self and individualism.

These are some of the forces shaping our world now, let alone shaping the future. Graham Cray summarises the dilemma of the Church by quoting a former director of CMS who, twenty-five years ago, shared with a missions conference in the States the explanation his son had given for leaving the Church:

“That man the preacher is saying all the right things. But he isn’t saying them to anybody. He doesn’t know where I am and it wouldn’t occur to him to even ask.”

We hold on to the truth that Jesus is “the same yesterday, today and forever”.Most of the time in Church, this has been articulated with a sense that Jesus and the gospel are museum pieces to be preserved in aspic. Rather, Jesus “the same yesterday, today and forever” means that He is as relevant today in all walks of life as he was fifty years ago, one hundred years ago, two thousand years ago.

Graham Cray, again, quotes a German theologian who states that “the gospel must be forwarded to a new address because the recipient is repeatedly changing his place of residence”. New forms of church are a “return to sender”: a rediscovery of the original Jesus story for each time, with diverse people in every place.

This article is an extract from “The Outside-In Church”, a report produced for CMS, by Richard Sudworth