A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a few people talk about the decline of the church here in the United Kingdom, and about different strategies that are being employed to address the decline. One of the leaders in the Methodist Church was talking about what they are doing to re-brand their denomination with a much more distinct focus on mission, and about their experimentations with intentional communities and new monasticism. A local vicar and theologian was later saying that if there is ever to be a renewal of life in the church, it needs to begin with a renewal of the clergy. The overarching concern of the conversation was one very earnest question: How do we stop people leaving the church?
Usually when I am listening to these sorts of conversations, two things go through my mind. The first is that, when we are faced with a situation like we are currently in here in the UK, we will only be able to press on when we have a healthy understanding of God’s sovereignty and a conviction that he is at work in the world even when we cannot see it. I posted about this a few months ago. The second thing that goes through my mind, though, is that maybe we do not need to do anything differently at all. Maybe we need to consider that God allows us to go through times like this in order to help us (re-)learn to depend on him.
I understand the impulse to want to rethink the things we do as the church when we seem to be failing to draw people in. After all, it is our calling to bear witness to Christ and his Kingdom and to seek to bring others in to discover the fullness of life that Jesus offers, and when that is not happening, we should be concerned. But what if too often we end up thinking everything needs to change because we are only looking to fulfil this calling in our own strength?
When listening to these sorts of conversations, you often here the first-person plural employed – we need to do this, we’ve tried this, we should try this. On the one hand, this could simply be understood as wrestling with how to carry out our responsibility to be witnesses and thinking about what that looks like in different times and places. But on the other hand, perhaps we need take a step back and consider the idea that God has already given us all the tools we need to be his witnesses in the world – Word and sacrament, and the empowerment of the Spirit – and have faith that the tools he has given us are the right tools for the job.
I tend to think, as I listen to these sorts of conversations, that although we would not hesitate to acknowledge that these are the tools we have been given, we have lost our confidence in what they can accomplish because they do not seem to be working right any more. But is the problem that the tools are faulty? Or is it perhaps that we simply do not trust God and his Spirit to make those tools effective any more? Few Christians would dare suggest that anything God has given his people to carry out their mission is insufficient. And that is why I suggest we consider that God is allowing us to go through a time of decline in order that we can re-learn to depend on him and the power of his Spirit to do the work he has called us to.
Christians around the world who find themselves in contexts where they are oppressed and persecuted also focus on what they need to do to preserve and grow the church. But I suspect that if you were to ask them what we need to do, their answers would be pretty simple: pray, read the Bible, stop making an idol of comfort and be willing to count the cost that comes with faithfulness, and keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. Certainly that is what animated the early church and why God blessed it with such rapid growth, as the book of Acts testifies to. And again today, with the church growing as rapidly as it is in different parts of the world, there is something for us to (re-)learn here, and it is not about adopting the most innovate strategies and programmes. It is simply about wholehearted dependence on the God who has called us and who is the source of the church’s life.
If we get to that point where our talk about what we need to do lines up with the things we need to do to depend on God, we will find ourselves in a good place. And perhaps, in God’s mercy, we will even find that the decline of the church is something we do not have to talk about any longer.