Calibrated for a World that Simply Doesn’t Exist

07/04/2021 1 By Mark Griffiths

Introduction

I want to talk to you about Mission – our mandate to communicate Jesus.  And I want to talk to you about Ecclesiology – The Church – God’s vehicle for communicating Jesus to the world.  And I really want us to talk about it.  Because across most of the developing world Christianity has lost traction.  And that means there are billions of people who have not encountered this amazing God that you and I worship.  And if we believe that an encounter with Jesus allows us to become everything God created us to be then it would be selfish of us not to communicate him.

The statistics are not great.   Only 5% of our under 18s are in church on Sundays.   The figure drops to 3% when we focus solely on Wales.  And the percentage across the UK drops still further when we focus solely on teens.  We are dealing with the same issues as much of the rest of the world.  We lose a sizable number in the transition phase from children to young people. 

Now let’s be fair with the statistics.  Firstly, there is a measuring error, by which I mean, why are we only measuring Sunday attendance – if people only come to home groups / discipleship groups but never come to Sunday church is their journey of discipleship invalid. 

Secondly, are denominations accidently sending the message to churches that they only value Sundays.  After all if they only ever ask about Sunday then surely the average pastor can be mistaken in thinking only that is important. 

But what if we take that a step further, you see I think research does something curious, it changes the thing it measurers.  Why would a pastor think something worth doing if nobody ever asks about it on annual returns, but what happens when we start asking him or her about Messy Church or our over 60s club, does that cause them to ask a particular question?  Does that change his or her attitude to it?

However, whichever way I mix it, the numbers are low across much of the Western world.  We’ve always been one generation from extinction and it’s looking a little bleak right now.   But I wonder how that statement feels to you.  That statement may not sit easy with you because we all have a difficulty with perception:  If I wore red tinted lenses everything looks warm, if blue you’d all look ill.  But we all wear coloured spectacles over our minds and that makes it difficult to see clearly.  I hit this all the time.  That Book of Common Prayer service that happens on Sunday evening and only the choir come.  But if you are part of that choir and like singing on Sunday evenings, you’ll fight for that service despite the fact that nobody ever comes.  You’ll deliberately place coloured spectacles over your mind and fight for your existence.  But if a particular form of worship is your thing, then you’ll be keen to preserve it because it feeds and nourishes you.  During the pandemic there were large numbers of Twitter posts that talked about people struggling to cope because they couldn’t attend a Eucharistic service.  And then as lockdown ended lots of people talking about the blessing they received from being able to take the sacrament.  And of course that’s maybe just the friends I have, so I will see more of that sort of post.  But I’m not at all sure they were the concerns of the majority of the country.  Hear me, I’m not saying there is anything wrong there, I’m simply saying that there may be a distinction between that which nourishes us and that which will help win others.  I am the person who loves BCP choral evensong, and I’m nourished by the new monastic orders, especially the Northumbria Community, and they have a part to play in God’s mission to the world, but there needs to be more or we remain a minority group. 

But that is simply to flag up that we will construct all sorts of theological stories to protect the things we like, coincidently that’s why the song or hymns you like best are the ones you think are the most anointed.

But that is why And that’s why Jake Mulder from Fuller Seminary California is so insightful when he writes:

The Church is Calibrated for a World that simply no longer exists

But I want us to explore this and be prepared to ask BIG questions.  What are we looking for. And I want to talk about this by advocating three principles:

  1. The need Heart Communities
  2. This is about the Significant and not the Spectacular
  3. There is always Hope

The Need Heart Communities

Any move in any direction has to be heart motivated.  The love of God must compel us.  Not just another list of great ideas.  It’s about allowing God to shape and direct our heart.  To recognise the ‘why’.  We’re doing it because we love God and those who have not encountered this God are missing out.  The ‘why’ is key, because my contention is if we nail down the ‘why’ we’ll work out the ‘how’.  Heart shaped communities, not formula built communities.  Communities compelled by the love of God. 

I Came to Christ when I was 15, to a glorious Pentecostal Chapel in Maesteg.  One of those buildings with a corrugated iron roof.  So no great inheritance of faith.  I had to work this out.  What is this all about?   It’s not about ensuring I go to heaven when I die, that’s just a perk – just a perk, but there is something here that allows me to become everything God created us to be.  It’s about the Holy Spirit shaping and forming and sculpting us so we live well – knowing how to deal with hurt and pain and disappointment.  And then it’s about instilling in our children an understanding that they are loved, valued, accepted and they get to be involved.  Even if they walk away and become the prodigals.  And I learnt that these are the values that are supposed to be the ones we bring to shape our Christian communities. 

So the goal becomes creating Christian Communities where the primary focus is not heaven, that’s just a perk, but a place where we accept people despite their imperfections.  A place where the worship is accessible to all, even those who just walked in off the streets, where the preaching is relevant and talks about the relevance of Christianity in the every day and the ordinary.  And that the goal of every church is transforming communities for God.  And that people are worth loving.  Acceptance is such a massive word.  Song of Songs, “with one glance of your eyes you captured my heart.”

But to have in mind that this is about making disciples and we need Christian Communities to do that.  And I want to talk (or invite others to talk) about what our worship and our liturgy and our preaching is about.  But the headline is this, we are creating heart shaped Christian communities.  So this whole thing need us to have a right heart.  And of course it is almost impossible to accept others if we haven’t accepted ourselves. 

This is about the Significant and not the Spectacular

And this one proves problematic for most church leaders.  From our theological colleges onwards we have bought into a particular story.  Success equals big church.  Let me show you how the models develop according to the Church Growth books; 

The cell or family-size church – also called the patriarchal or matriarchal church, has up to 50 active members.  This small church functions like a family, with appropriate parental figures.  The patriarchs and matriarchs control the church’s leadership needs.  The vicar/minister in many ways is the chaplain of this small family.  As with families in general, family or patriarchal churches incorporate new members by birth, marriage or adoption – don’t miss that, this community can adopt you.  I came to faith in one of these.  It was glorious.  A shed with the words Pentecostal Church written outside.  50 tambourine playing people made up of all ages.  The tambourines of course had ribbons. 

But this is considered the beginners church.  The place where the pastor learns his or her trade.  The move is to the Pastoral Church.  The congregation or pastoral-size church has 50 to 150 active members.  The Pastor is usually at the centre of a pastoral-size church.  A leadership circle, made up of the pastor and a small group of lay leaders, replaces the patriarchs and matriarchs of the family-size church.  And probably one of the key factors of the Pastoral Church is that laity experience having their spiritual needs met through their personal relationship with a seminary-trained person.  In this sort of church it would be rare for a Bible study or a prayer group to meet without the pastor.  It is proud of its sense of itself as a family in which everyone knows every else.  People tend to join – or indeed leave – the church because of the pastor.

The Programme church has 150 to 350 active members.  It grows out of the necessity for a high-quality personal relationship with the pastor to be supplemented by other avenues of spiritual feeding. Programmes must now begin to fill that role. The well-functioning program-size church has many cells of activity, which are headed up by lay leaders. These lay leaders, in addition to providing structure and guidance for these cells, also take on some pastoral functions.  Pastors are still at the centre of the program-size church, but their role shifts dramatically. Much of their times and attention is spent in planning with other lay leaders to ensure the highest quality programs.  The vicar/pastor must spend a lot of time recruiting people to head up these smaller ministries, training, supervising, and evaluation them, and seeing to it that their morale remains high. In essence the pastor must often step back from direct ministry with people to coordinate and support volunteers who offer this ministry.  People tend to be attracted to pastoral-size churches, not just because of the pastor, but because of the programmes the church runs.  And this is probably the shape of church I spent most of my active ministry in.  But in the last parish we had moved to multiple versions of this (Warfield Church (wordpress.com) several churches of this size, multiple church plants.

Finally, the corporate-size church moving to Mega Church has 350 or more active members.  The quality of Sunday morning worship is the first thing you usually notice in a corporate-size church.  A lot of work goes into making Sunday worship a rich experience.  The head of staff usually spends more time than other clergy preparing for preaching and leading worship.  Welcome will be slick and polished.  In very large corporate-size churches, the head of staff will rarely know the names of many members.  People join for the quality of worship and other activities and sometimes because they can remain anonymous.  There are a large number of employed staff.  We bought the best!  And a masking goes on.  The mega church always has several hundred children and several hundred teenagers.  But they are not transitioning through and they are often a different ‘several hundred’ every few years.  But it’s masked because there are always several hundred.

We are programmed to chase after the mega church.  And it is very difficult to shake.  In my season as senior leader I instinctively knew that church planting was the way forward.  So we planted and planted.  We arrived with a central church of 300 people and 5 church plants of 80 to 120 people each.  But the pressure and tension you feel.  If I brought these together I could lead a congregation of 1,000+ within the year.  And they are all struggling.  Not enough musicians, so we have to use the ones that often get the chords wrong, not enough youth workers and children workers and welcomers and preachers and leaders and …. Ah!  You saw the additional trap.  To try and run the church of 100 as if it were the church of 1,000 without recognising what is actually taking place.  In the 100 people church everyone has their sleeves rolled up and their involved, they own it, there are few professionals.  But the comparison with the super slick big church.  And most of our worship is intergen because we don’t have the kids workers.  But the difficulty in recognising that you’ve walked into a good thing, when big church is far more polished and professional, and we don’t have to listen to Tim and his accordion ever leading worship again. 

But the need to feel you lead a spectacular church?  It’s such a pull, particularly if those you went to theological college with you are leading large churches.  But it is the desire for the Spectacular over the Significant.  It is not about how impressive I am.  It is about communicating the Crucified Christ and making disciples.  The internal war rages.  Go and make disciples.  But I’d like a big church with my own car parking spot.  Go and make disciples.  But I want to employ the best worship leader.  Go and make disciples.  And I dare suggest that it’s not the mega church where we are making most of disciples.

There is always Hope

Cornel West, a Princeton professor was asked,  “Are you hopeful for the coming decade?”  He responded, “The categories of optimism and pessimism do not exist for me. I am a prisoner of hope.”

Jesus said that he will build His Church and the gates of hell do not win.

And right there at the very heart of the gospel message is the idea that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overpower it.  It’s wonderful really.  And it is transformative.  So we are looking for people with the right heart, who recognise that the significant is so much more important than the spectacular and have become prisoners of hope.  

But I need to make the observation.  In terms of our general populations, there’s not a lot of Christians kicking about.  So we need to own up to this.  Take the coloured spectacles off.  And hold up our hands and say, whatever the model we’ve been using is, it has lost us generation after generation. 

Albert Einstein is widely credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

And maybe we also have to own the reality that, “The church is calibrated for a world that simply doesn’t exist.”

So let’s recognise we really are back at the start.  How do I re-evangelise nations?  And how do we re-evangelise nations in such a way as so not to reinvent the difficulties.  We’re all discipled in a particular way of doing church.  But what if you could start again?  Rethink the whole thing.  Recognise that discipleship is the primary goal.  How would that look? 

Because that’s where we are.  The blank sheet of paper.  A world to win.

How would it look to recalibrate?