A few months ago, a visitor came to the church service I attend. She had been part of the church some time ago, and all she could talk about was how it used to be. She told us her memories of the church as it used to be. She expected us to engage with those memories and the people she had known, but as people new to the church (we have only been going 5 years) we didn’t relate to her stories at all. In the flood of memories that she presented was a veiled sense of dissatisfaction with how different it looked today. Our small service gathered around coffee and discussion, was not what she expected or valued. It is easy to become attached to pleasant memories, and many people seem to be caught up in how the church was in their most formative years, when it had most impact on them. But these memories, can influence our expectations of what the church should look like today, and some people get so caught up in their fond memories that they forget to engage well with how things actually are today.
I have the opposite problem I get so caught up in the future, in the idealism of how things could be that I too can miss engaging well with the present. I can also be guilty of having unrealistic expectations of the church today. It is clear that the past has gone, and the future is still cloudy, but we bring our eyes back to the present and look around reflectively. We can make the effort to engage well with how things are today, both in our church and in society. Part of our grounding in the present is to recognise that with the speed of change that we now experience, what worked in the past no longer predicts what works today, and what works today no longer predicts what will work tomorrow.
The world is changing (and I think 2016 made that very clear even to those who continue to deny the speed of change). I have spent the last 10-15 years observing churches wrestling with how to keep up and how to respond. Time after time I have seen them focusing on the style of what they are doing, or the way they are doing things. In the 1990’s many churches started cafes, and even cafe services became the thing to do. Church music styles always seem to go through trends, and at the moment it seems music and an atmosphere that resembles an EDM concert is on trend. There is nothing wrong with these outward changes, I like good coffee and sitting around a table, I like a little EDM in my music mix, and my son certainly loves the atmosphere of EDM. Except that focussing on the style and the way we do church is not addressing the problem of how we need to be the people of God today. The changes are only happening at the most superficial levels of how things look, and what we do. As we consider changes in the way we do things it also become easy to confuse relevance with good contextualisation.
I am convinced that these stylistic issues are distractions from dealing with the deeper issues that have led to the church struggling to grow and to attract post-modern generations.
We need to make a fresh start that isn’t encumbered by our difficult, inadequate or even our successful past. The past can often limit our creativity, we think we are imagining something new yet we are still working in old paradigms and just styling them differently. To truly explore where a prophetic, disruptive imagination can lead us we need to pretend that we are starting afresh, to give ourselves a blank page and ponder:
If we were starting a church for the first time today who would we be?
To start exploring that question we need to take the time to wrestle deeply with three areas. These are not questions of style or how we do things and they are not exotic, new or surprising. I believe the renewal will come when we take the time to explore more deeply our understanding of theology, of community and of ecclesiology (what we understand about the nature and structure of church). I think in our search for relevance we have neglected the churches engagement in these three areas. I will be exploring each of these further in a 6 part series over the next few months I blog once a fortnight and offer a miniblog on the Facebook page in between bread and pomegranates on facebook
It is clear that it is time for change in the church. But what should and could that change look like?
It is so much easier to point the finger of critique, to see the problems and the issues. It is much harder to begin to say “what shall we do about it?” How do we engage today with being church well for the people that we are, and our friends. How do we open up some safe, positive spaces that nurture creativity, gather people together and say lets generate options, throw ideas around, sit together and talk about our dreams for the people of God gathered. Let’s explore the new together.
What experiences and memories of your past are hindering you engaging well with seeing what the church could be?
How could you open up a safe positive space to nurture creative engagement with the deep issues in your church?