Having our Church on ‘Facebook’ has made for some interesting reading. There are lots of posts from people which discuss ‘Who is leaving the Church and Why’, ‘Why I am staying’, ‘What I like about the Church.’
Here is my distillation of what they are saying.
Some people say ‘I am going because the Church is too (insert objection here). So the idea is ‘There is nothing wrong with me, what I encountered showed me that there is something wrong with you!’ One person complained about the ‘language’ of the Church like ‘salvation’ ‘intercession’ and so on.
Others say ‘The problem is not with us, its with you!’ In response to the complaint above, a responder posted “Of course the Church is gong to be ‘Churchy’. Do you expect the opera not to be ‘operatic’ or the theatre not to be ‘theatrical?’
There is also an interesting set of comments that compare ‘entertainment’ type Church (like many of the newer, Pentecostal Churches, with Churches that have stayed more sacramental.
Here the comments go “Young people today are returning to more ‘sacramental’ Churches because they offer true values, solid worship. The ‘entertainment’ churches are superficial, and people soon get bored. After all, if you’re interested in being ‘entertained’ the boredom factor is high and people might soon move on. The Churches who ‘stayed the same’ are like the parents who have solid values, and ‘hang around’ waiting for the kids to get past their ‘entertainment’ phase, and to come ‘home’ again. For the Churches that have ‘stayed the same’ this feels like good news because for the first time there is some criticism of the Churches that attract a lot of young people, by young people!
In the market for other goods and services, the customer is king! One of the best quotes about ‘The consumer that I have read is ‘The customer doesn’t want choice, they want what they want.’ The retailers know too that by having three ‘models’, a dear one, a middle priced one and a cheap one, there will be some people willing to buy each, but that most people will buy the ‘middle priced’ model, whatever it is. In one way, if we are taking the ‘market’, different denominations are like different ‘products.’ People ‘buy’ them or not depending on their sense of need. If they want to ‘buy’ they may get their dose of ‘God’ from a ‘young people’s Church’ when they are young, but as their picture of themselves changes, as they get older, they may go to an ‘older person’s Church’ or a ‘Family Church’ if they have families. We could just relax a bit and say ‘Well, our ‘niche’ is ‘X’, we can’t be everything to everyone. The whole society is just too splintered. But we can acknowledge a lot of different needs, and be content with supplying some of them to some people.
That would be fine if there were a broader funding model. For example: down the road is a ‘Family Church’ people pass us by to go to it. We have been known as an ‘older person’s Church’. So if the two congregations recognised their different ‘niches’, why can’t there be a funding model that says ‘When you are young you can go down the road. But as you get older, you might prefer something quieter. We understand this. In fact the two congregations form part of the one funding entity. We have joint bank accounts etc. We fund two clergy positions.’ Although in the Anglican Church we talk a lot about the diocese being the unit of the Church, financially, we operate like a congregational Church. Any single congregation that does not pull its own weight, financially, goes under.
Pride makes this a problem for us. Each congregation, each clergy person (me included) thinks that we’re pretty good. It would take humility for us to accept our limitations and acknowledge that we can’t do everything. On the other hand, if a congregation is thriving for one reason or another, it takes more humility to give away its money to another, struggling congregation (like us) in the acknowledgement that they can’t do it all either. Still, it’s worth thinking about how this model might work.
But look, I’ll come straight out with this! The problem with all these posts and ideas about Church is that they are all infected by the market. All the posts, and even my idea about ‘different Churches for different ages and stages’ treat the Church as a shop, and that the people who come are consumers of religious goods and services.
To stop worshiping the ‘market’ the Church as a whole has to understand itself in terms of discipleship. The idea of discipleship stops us from thinking about a ‘snapshot’ of the Church and asks us to think about ‘What is our journey with god right now?’ This applies to everyone. People not yet Christians, people just becoming Christians and people who have been Christians for a long time.
Here’s what Jesus did. He had a form of credible witness for his time. He came announcing the Reign of God, and acted as if that Reign was beginning, in him. So he healed the sick, and cast out daemons (signs of opposite reigns at work in people). He embraced sinners and ‘broke bread with them. He broke food purity laws, he called for a deeper righteousness, he gave ways to oppressed people to find their dignity again. *
Then he called a group of disciples whop found this ‘witness’ interesting or hopeful. He trained them up, but often they did not understand what he was on about. Many left him, some stayed.
Then after Easter most of them ‘got it’. The Spirit of Jesus entered into them. He was still with them as they ‘broke the bread’, so they were empowered to carry on as the community that embodied the Reign of God, à la Jesus’ ‘Way’
So that’s what I think we need to do. Christians who have been Christian for a long time need to refresh continually their sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That way their ‘witness’ to what that means will be refreshed, and we will never get stale. We need to be in groups of people who are becoming Christians for the first time to hear their questions and to be challenged by their dedication, and to offer back our wisdom.
We need to invite people to become Christian, as a result of their seeing our ‘credible witness’. These people have a lot to offer in terms of dedication, fresh insights, and new forms of contribution. They need to be given permission to do it. But they too need to learn the ways of Christ. They need to learn the terminology of the Church, and how to worship, because these too are part of the “breaking of the bread’’ and the living of a Christian lifestyle.
We need to discover what a ‘credible witness’ looks like for us. This will come through a commitment to a continuing renewal of our babtism, when we were plunged into Christ.
So that’s my go. It’s more about discipleship than retailing. ‘Attending Church’ is a necessary first step, but ‘following’ is the second.
* Just think how embarrassing it is to a rich person, who is trying to take the cloak of a poor one by means of law, to be confronted with a naked poor man, throwing his cloak at his feet! Or a Roman soldier, who is making you carry their pack for a mile, suddenly finding himself in danger because you say ‘Here’ I’ll carry it two!’