Thursday, 25 July 2013

A rise in optimism

I believe that despite the negative press, talk of Church decline and the rise of secularism and a more aggressive form of atheism, these are exciting times to be a Christian and I am very optimistic about the Church.

First, through decline, we are seeing the death of the sort of nominalism that has beleaguered the Church for too long and has fed folk the view that being a Christian meant little more than being a member of the local bowl club. Christianity - or rather Churchianity - was seen as a religious club which anyone could, and should join, because that is what everyone did.

Second, through the rise of secularism the Church has been challenged to think more deeply about its faith, what it stands for and what difference it should be making in the world. What is a Christian? What makes him/her different from someone who is not a follower of Jesus? Secularism asks those questions and we are slowly becoming clearer about how to answer.

Third, although aggressive atheism can come across as rather violent and unpleasant, underneath the bluster there are honest questions being asked of the Christian Faith which for all too long the Church has ignored or tried to sidestep. We have had to be honest about abuse of power, violence and prejudice and the somewhat chequered history of the Church through the ages. With the rise of a more articulate and popular atheism we have seen a corresponding rise of a number articulate apologists with the subject of apologetics making an appearance on various theological courses. There is also greater a push to teach Christians more about the big questions about life, evolution, creation, the environment etc.

Personally I have all of this very stimulating and it has made me re-think my ministry and my calling and in particular the role of the Church in society. In terms of the Church building it is such an underused and wasted resource for 90% of the week that I am now beginning to wonder if there are better ways of using it as we work out our mission in the local area. With greater flexibility through the removal of the fixed pews it can not just be a better area for different forms of worship but may also be used for exhibitions, charity work, festivals, concerts, classes, mother and toddlers, a food bank, work with schools and all kinds of things.

I was very interested to read an article on the BBC News website about the new Archbishop of Canterbury's thoughts in this direction. Here is an excerpt:

"Earlier this month, Archbishop Welby launched a new credit union aimed at clergy and church staff. Credit unions charge their members low rates of interest to borrow money. BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said the archbishop's plan was to go to some of the 500 independent loan companies and say to them, "We will help you by letting you have access to our buildings and expertise".

Our correspondent said the Church would not run the companies but would help them and allow them to work on its premises.

"I think the archbishop would see this as a social good countering a social evil," he said.

He also said it was quite possible that in future people could go to church when they needed to borrow money.

"Churches are already being used as libraries and shops and post offices. It's part of a wider trend for churches to try and become more relevant to people's everyday lives."

Charities such as Christians Against Poverty already use church premises to offer debt counselling to those in difficulty."

Jesus said that we are to be the "light of the world" so that people may see us and through the good we do in God's name, give him glory (Matthew 5:14-16). If people are to "see the light" they need to see the light of our actions and so looking at how we use our resources - plant and people, buildings and gifts - is surely all part of trying to do that.

This is NOT to substitute all this for what is our primary function - the worship of God etc - but is rather an outworking of the vertical aspect of our faith horizontally to others.

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