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How can we future-proof the Church?

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Second Sunday before Advent,17.11.19

Malachi 4: The Great Day of the Lord

& Luke 21: 5-19: The Destruction of the Temple Foretold

Today Jesus tells it as it is – something we can be poor at in religious life, full as we often are of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’.

 

The invitation to look at the wonders of the Temple, as he and his disciples wander nearby, is a temptation to assume everything will go on the same as it always has; another trap we religious people fall into.

 

Jesus tells his listeners categorically that things are not going to go on the same; the Temple, the symbolic centre and foundation of the Jewish faith, will be dismantled stone by stone.

 

This of course came true in AD70 when the invading Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem and burnt the Temple to the ground. The gold mortar melted and each stone lay about in total deconstruction.

 

Jesus is utterly realistic about the future of the Temple – it will not last into the future.

 

He tells them of its impending demise in the face of an over arching narrative of religious pride and identity and a feeling perhaps that as long as the building remains, the faith will continue.

 

In fact, not one stone will be left upon another – it’s not just going to fall down, it’s going to be dismantled bit by bit until everything is taken back to square one.

 

Dismantling stone by stone is perhaps a fitting metaphor for what has been happening culturally in the West, to the Christian faith, ever since the Enlightenment and particularly since the two World Wars as people lose faith in God as alive and active for good in the world. Whether we call it the modern or the post-modern, it’s continuing apace, and we live our lives as people of faith in this context, for good or ill.

 

Deconstruction in itself is not necessarily bad: I’m all for deconstructing patriarchy in the Church, for example, and I’m in favour of people going to church because they love God, not because they’ve been told they have to. I’m in favour of looking closely at why we say we’re Christian and what that actually means in practice.

 

But the problem with deconstruction is that after deconstructing, you tend to have a whole pile of stones at your feet and you may not know how to make them back into a building that’s fit for the future.

 

So I wondered, as I prepared this talk, if it would be at all possible to ‘future proof’ the Church.

 

Future proofing is a concept used in business to make a company fit for the future – to give it the best chance to survive the stresses and pressures of the future and make it a body fit to survive and flourish.

 

What will flourish of Christianity going into the future?

 

What would Jesus say to us today about how to “future proof” the church?

 

In a sense, the church is already future-proofed by Jesus, when he said: “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”. That much is certain. But even with that backdrop, there are questions and challenges for each local congregation and for each denomination.

 

I think it was former Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, who once said he was personally convinced of the future of the Christian faith, but didn’t know to what extent the Church of England would be part of this.

 

Each succeeding generation is faced with the challenge to pass on the faith in a way that sticks and lasts.

 

It’s not just about making disciples, but making disciple-making disciples.

 

So here are three suggestions for how we can “future proof” the Church. They may be applicable to other church contexts, but I have mainly tried to locate these thoughts around St John and St Stephen’s.

 

They are suggestions to chew over. They are not exhaustive; you will be able to think of others that I have omitted, and so I hope this can become an ongoing conversation.

 

Firstly: To future-proof the Church we need to take the Spiritual Disciplines seriously.

 

I don’t know what you think of when you hear the phrase “Spiritual Disciplines”…

I am deeply formed by the work of Quaker author Richard Foster, who wrote Celebration of Discipline in 1980 – nearly 40 years ago.

 

The spiritual life doesn’t just happen; it is enabled by habits that we get into, of prayer, reading scripture and the 3 S’s: silence, solitude and stillness.

 

The foreword reads as though it were today, not 1980: he writes of what he calls “flabby Christianity”, citing the ‘sad decline in true spirituality amongst the majority of Western Christians. We have neglected our prayer life; we have stopped listening to God; we have been caught by the covetous spirit of our affluent society, and worshipped the false god of materialism. We have exchanged our knowledge of God for heady disputes and theological words, or for religious or social activism. We have forgotten how to be still before God, how to meditate, trapped as we are in the vortex of modern life’.

 

And he wrote this before the age of the Internet!

 

The disciplines of the spiritual life are the way the real life of Christ, which is everywhere and eternally active and powerful, flows through us and out into the world.

 

The disciplines are not an end in themselves; they are the channel through which the water of life flows. If you don’t have a channel, you can’t easily get that life flowing through you.

 

The example is the life of Jesus, who frequently took himself off to the hills to be still and quiet; who went to the wilderness to face his temptations and who discerned the spirits of people.

 

It’s the three S’s that I have had to work most at in the last few years, since I entered middle age. Silence was something I had never properly encountered before the idea of a silent retreat surfaced, in conjunction with getting ordained. I thought it sounded like a terrible idea, a kind of deprivation of the unpleasantest kind.

 

Once I’d had a silent retreat without 44 other Ordinands, I realised you need solitude to get silence. Then I realised that far from being odd, what’s actually odd is the level of constant noise and chatter (both external and internal) that fills our whole lives, all the time.

 

Shops play music, politicians bat away questions by a constant patter of their party’s script; our heads are filled with self justification, fear and endless replayed conversations that didn’t go our way, and this happens from dawn till dusk (or it does in my head, anyway).

 

External silence is vital for internal silence. Internal silence is needful for hearing God’s voice. The fact that most modern people feel that God is entirely distant, if indeed he exists at all, shows us that there is way too much noise for our collective spiritual health.

 

There’s a reason we don’t want to be still and silent, of course – because it means we have to face our pain, and our mortality. And so we are like the disciples – look teacher! – I’m fine; we’re fine; we’re all getting along just fine; look at the edifice of our lives!!

 

But Jesus is always realistic, to the point of being embarrassingly blunt. Not one stone will remain upon another.

 

In a society where “spiritual, not religious” is the new identity, we need to be people who can actually articulate what goes on spiritually in our lives. People are less interested in the fact you go to church, read the bible and attend a house group. Instead they want to know, how do you meditate; will that help my anxiety? What’s it like to ‘feel God’; what do you mean you ‘love Jesus’?

 

Secondly: we need to give some serious thought to the relationship between contemplation and action.

 

I’m all for contemplation; it’s a way of prayer that I’m trying to grow into. In short, I’d describe it as a retreat from words; an adventure into the mystery of God and a chance to step back from the busyness of life and get things in perspective – to grow in epistemological humility.

 

BUT, sooner or later one is back in the busyness of life and even now I hate writing/saying that phrase. I dislike being told: “I expect you’re so busy” because it would be so easy to become a religious functionary and I believe that sadly you can actually be a functionary in the Church, without having a vibrant spiritual life.

 

But when you say you’re not busy, people assume you’re slacking. Because being not busy is so utterly counter-cultural these days.

 

I was talking with a friend of a child in year 3 recently (rising 8 years old). She was mourning a time when children of 8 went to each other’s houses for tea. These days, in her context at least (and this won’t be true of all contexts) the 8 year olds have no time to go to tea because they’re too busy going to all their extra curricular activities. They don’t know how to stop and they don’t know how to be bored.

 

We are a church of many activities – it’s one of the GOOD things about us. But this week someone asked the question, what is the difference between a church doing lots of activities and a secular run organization also offering toddler groups and lunch clubs? ‘We’re offering Jesus’, was one answer. ‘What does that even mean?’ came back the very valid question!

 

Living a life of contemplation is perhaps beautifully simple. Living a life of action is perhaps beautifully simple; what’s difficult is combining them in a truly holistic, authentic and transformative manner. Putting on social events in order to convert people is not good enough.

 

It has to be something to do with the flow of love that comes down the channel of our lives so that others cannot help but be refreshed. The people who might be able to articulate what this feels like are the people who come into the café and church each day, even perhaps the people who live near the church and who have Christian neighbours. Perhaps they are the ones to say what contemplation and action feel like on the receiving end.

 

In Reading College this week there was a short Service of Freedom and Remembrance led by the Chair of Churches Together in Reading, Mike Penny, which I was delighted to take part in. Reading College has a large atrium around which people can gather and look down on the action below. I was amazed that the top floor became completely filled with students who had all chosen to be there at 10.50am.

 

Members of the media department had been drafted in to read some short pieces about World Freedom Day, which is marked on 9 November, and this was linked with Remembrance, and a Salvation Army bugler played the Last Post and the Reveille.

 

As Mike did his short talk, referring to the thousands who’d died to preserve our freedom, there was definitely that something ‘extra’ there, very hard to quantify, impossible to pin down, but he had the attention of scores of young people, most of whom, I would guess, were Unchurched, from families where any form of active Christianity has not been a reality for 3 or more generations. He shard his faith that when we die we simply fall asleep in Christ, that there is hope in the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

 

He had their attention because the life of Christ was there, it was flowing; it was tangible. From having no active Christian presence formerly, the College has now got a Chaplaincy Team and a yearly act of worship at Remembrance. It was effective because it was action and contemplation held in an intentional and very creative tension.

 

And thirdly: Jesus.

 

When Jesus foretells the total deconstruction of the Temple, he doesn’t leave it there. One of the charges against him is that ‘this fellow said’ destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.

 

In his death and resurrection Jesus relocates the spiritual life of the Jewish people in himself, in his own body. As an offering, it is rejected nationally, but taken up by a few disciples. Against all the odds, the idea of a faith that is internal before it is external, is born, and has gone on to dominate the Western imagination ever since. We enact our faith in the body of Christ as the locus of our salvation every Sunday as we share bread and wine.

 

The idea of self giving love as the overarching meaning of our lives continues to inform the way society works, whether it is attributed to God or not. “Can you be good without God?” is one of the most interesting questions we might ponder philosophically. Most of society seems to have decided the resounding answer is: yes, you can. But is it that simple?

 

I’m reading the historian Tom Holland at the moment. His book Dominion, was born out of his research into ancient civilizations and their values.

 

He’s admitted in several interviews recently, and in an article published in The Spectator in April, that as a lapsed Anglican, his assumption was that values of tolerance, equality and the worth and dignity of all human beings were universal. Meanwhile academically he immersed himself in the study of cultures where it was absolutely assumed that might was right.

 

The gods of ancient Greece and Rome were capricious and jostled with each other for power. The Lord of a Greek or Roman household had the right to treat the members of his household, whether slaves, young men or women, in whatever way he pleased – including sexually – and it was in no way questioned. No one mentioned that his or her human rights were being disregarded. Slavery was considered utterly normal.

 

The more he studied the values of ancient societies the more Holland realised that his own values, un-moored though they were from a personal practice of Christianity, were nonetheless completely informed by the example of a God who became man and gave himself up to death on a cross, three days later to rise to new life.

 

This is how we see society today, it seems. All the important battles are being waged over equality. How can we have a just society where everyone gets a bite of the cherry? A Health Service free at the point of need and an education system that works for everyone are frequently at the top of political agendas and no one thinks it odd.

 

Christmas adverts are always about getting together, fellowship and love, and cute dragons that need to be given a chance to blow their flames over a Christmas pudding rather than destroy a dinner party with the mighty breath of their mouth (John Lewis).

 

Community, love, caring for the weak – those are the values that sell stuff – not: “ buy this cheap piece of clothing and you will be oppressing a single mother in Bangladesh who can’t afford to feed her family”. That sort of slogan doesn’t sell stuff in a society that is, to use Tom Holland’s phrase, ‘irredeemably Christian’.

 

So if we’re ‘irredeemably Christian’, how come so many people have given up on organized Christianity? And how can we address this in our own context?

 

Jesus goes on in the passage to speak about witness. We’re into the apocalyptic here; persecution is coming for the disciples; indeed “you will be hated by all because of my name”. It’s one of the most chilling statements in the New Testament. But they will save their souls by relying on him to give them the words they need. For us this might mean holding out for wisdom in an age of information.

 

It provides us with a challenge. To continue the bodies, not buildings metaphor, the subtle thing about us humans is that we are rather prone to putting in alternative foundations. God is very gracious and he knows that is the risk with religious people.

 

The way it’s supposed to work is, as the hymn goes, is: “Christ is made the sure foundation”, but we are prone to building on alternatives.

 

The Ten Commandments (shorter version) gives us “Love God and love your neighbour as you love yourself”, and there you have the contemplation and action dynamic – your spiritual, your social and your psychological health all tied up beautifully in one sentence.

 

Those spiritual disciplines help us check we are still building on Christ, as individuals and as a church. “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”. The sort of church that is future proofed, is the Church that is built on Christ, composed of lives that are built on Christ.

 

What that means for you will be very personal, but it has to do with going deeper. This is hard when you’ve been a Christian a long time, when you’ve been in the same church for a long time.

 

The longest I’ve ever been involved in a single congregation was 11 years, at Shiplake. It nearly drove me bonkers. And was, at the same time, the most fruitful time spiritually, because I was forced to keep asking: “Is this all there is?”

 

If you’ve stopped asking “is this all there is?” maybe it’s time to check the foundations of your building.

 

Ignatian insights can be hugely helpful – not only are you reading the bible story, you’re in it. A spiritual director can ask you the questions about your prayer life no one else will. Spiritual disciplines of silence, solitude and stillness, along with typologies such as the Enneagram, can help us to look at our inner motivations, which can often remain largely unexamined…

 

It’s high time to draw things to a close.

 

How can we future-proof the Church? How can we build something long lasting out of the often healthy, but disorientating, deconstruction of post modern-ism?

 

By practising and growing together in the Spiritual Disciplines, by exploring deeply the relationship of prayer to action, and by making sure our foundation is Jesus Christ.

 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.