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Get Real about the Church’s Weakness2 weeks ago
The pandemic has revealed some of the church’s strengths, but also exposed its weakness. In this week’s Blog our Director, Kevin Roberts, says that it is time for the church in the west to not only accept its fragility, but to embrace it and to live out of it, as the place where we most likely to engage again with the power and purposes of God.
The experience of the pandemic over the last eighteen months has highlighted some wonderful, even exceptional things, about the church in our country. I would include in that our ability to adapt to changed circumstances, our stickability through difficult times, the compassion that churches have shown in acts of service in their communities, and in it all the hope in Christ that the church has carried sincerely and resolutely though even the darkest days of the last year and more.
All of which has been a joy to behold.
I think it is the American author Robert McKee who said that “the true character of human beings is revealed in the choices that they make under pressure”. It feels to me as though this period of deep disturbance to the church’s equilibrium over the period of the pandemic, the immense pressure that it has put us under, has revealed some of the goodness and godliness of our true character as the Body of Christ, which gives me great hope for the church’s future.
A fragile Church
It has, though, revealed something of our current weakness and fragility.
The impact of the pandemic upon the worship and witness of the church has sometimes felt like an afterthought in the government’s response to the crisis.
The voice of senior church leaders has very rarely hit the front pages of our newspapers, if ever.
In a period of time when people have been perhaps most inclined to ask the big existential questions of life and death there has been very little by way of public apologetics.
And while our online presence has brought us into first contact with a host of people who wouldn’t normally darken the doors of a church building, many churches have seen people drifting away from their fringes, who for a whole host of reasons may not be inclined to return.
The Christian voices on social media platforms have been at their most passionate issues about which we disagree, exposing deep divisions amongst us.
And with all of this has come another layer of financial pressure for local churches and for dioceses and denominations, with consequent reductions in the number of church leaders that we can employ and the scale of activity that we can contemplate.
The pressures of the pandemic have revealed some of our strengths, but we are kidding ourselves if we can’t see that they have also exposed some of our weakness: our diminished influence locally and nationally; our declining numbers and ageing composition; and our growing inability to sustain a model of church that revolves around expensive buildings and equally expensive paid leaders.
The Big Question
So, I wonder whether the big question now facing us as we begin to emerge from the worst effects of the pandemic, is whether we will embrace our weakness as a strength and live authentically and hopefully from a place of reality and truth, or whether we will try and live our collective life as church as though we are stronger that we really are, and in ways that that feel more and more like a hangover from the past?
I just wonder. Is this the time to embrace our weakness as church in a new and more resolute way, locally, nationally, at every level of the church’s life? Is this the time to ‘own’ the reality of our smallness. To stop kidding ourselves that we are what we may once have been. And then to find that embracing the truth sets us free. That when we are weak we are truly strong. That this is exactly where God meets us. Not in an illusion of what we wish we were. But in the sometimes-joyful and sometimes-painful realities of life, and church, as it really is.
The Great Reversal
Isn’t that the paradox that we see worked out again and again in the scriptures, old testament and new? That God chooses the least likely people to do the most extraordinary things for the Kingdom. That God uses the weakest people to do the greatest work for the gospel. That using the weak isn’t an exception in God’s purposes, but we might even say that it is God’s strategy. It is the way that He works. It is the territory that He inhabits. It is where He turns up. That God, then and now, always and everywhere chooses ”the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong; God chooses the lowly things of this world and the despised things – the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before Him”.
It is what Tim Keller in his book ‘Hope in Times of Fear’ calls “the great reversal”. A reversal that plays out through the whole of salvation history; that we see paramountly in the cross and resurrection of Jesus; and that God asks us now to embrace in the church and in our personal lives.
The great reversal is that the way to strength is through our weakness. That weakness is the doorway into the provisions and purposes of God. Not our abilities, or our status or any of the trappings we might usually associate with greatness. But our weakness. That’s where we come face to face with the God of Abraham and Moses and Jeremiah and Peter and countless saints down the ages, who found along with the Apostle Paul that God’s power “is made perfect in weakness”. That when we are weak that right then, right there, we are strong.
So, paradoxically, for the church to accept and inhabit its weakness may be the best possible thing that it could do for its future and for the work of God’s Kingdom.
Strength in Weakness
Maybe it is in our felt weakness that we will know our need of God in a new way and turn to Him with listening ears and with open hands, and be deeply renewed by the power of His Spirit and the generosity of His provision.
Maybe it is in our felt smallness that we will see the harvest field white over and hear a call into adventurous, creative, risky ways of reaching the lost and growing the church, and be caught up in the rampant, compassionate, life-giving mission of the Spirit of God in our communities.
Maybe it is when we feel overwhelmed by the scale of the task before us that we will find a fresh resolve to work with other churches, and honour what they can bring to the church’s mission in the power of the Spirit, and find ourselves drawn into a new unity in the Spirit across our denominations and differences.
Maybe it is in our weakness that we will serve the weak of the world, and be drawn to those who feel equally on the margins and be a welcoming place for those who need authentic relationships and a family in which they can take their place and play their part.
Lay aside our Majesty
I don’t know whether this resonates with you?
But just maybe this is the time to lay aside any sense of majesty, any sense of entitlement and privilege; to face up to our smallness and fragility; to throw off the fading garments of a former glory, and in that very place find God meeting us with His incomparable grace and immeasurable power, as He catches us up in a strategy that seems to favour the weak over the strong, and doing things in us and through us that humble us again, and quite simply take our breath away.
Let me finish with the Lord’s words to the Apostle Paul, and to us and our churches: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Is this the time to get real and to live out of our weakness, as the very place in which we will meet God afresh and be caught up in His Kingdom purposes in a new kind of way.