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Stagnation to growth in the power of the Spirit3 weeks ago
ReSource Consultant Christopher Landau engages with the current debate about whether the success of online services in multi-parish benefices during the lockdown is an indicator that more of our church buildings should close. He argues that there is another way!
“When Christians start arguing for the closure of churches you know that we’re in trouble”.
So wrote Andy Lyon, the publishing director of Hodder Faith, on Twitter earlier this month.
He was commenting on an article written by the Ven Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley, in which she reflects on seeing multi-parish benefices adapt positively to the challenges of lockdown. (https://viamedia.news/2020/06/09/we-cant-go-back-to-preserving-bricks-mortar/) She identifies the similarities between contemporary church life, and the situation facing the followers of Jesus post-Pentecost:
"A small group of beleaguered disciples, tired, fearful and disappointed, uncertain about the future, meeting behind closed doors, wistfully reminiscing about the crowds who had at one time gathered with them. Now it’s just the faithful remnant.
The Holy Spirit comes, and they are transformed, heading out into the public arena, living life fully as Christ’s followers, drawing others to join them by their love for each other and their neighbours, and their accessible, amateurish but heartfelt teaching and worship."
Nikki Groarke’s argument is that some online united benefice services have, in her experience, turned what were previously several small groups at worship into one viable, larger congregation “energised and engaged each week, making new friends and attracting others. It’s easier to join a crowd than a clique.”
This is therefore, she suggests, surely “the time to courageously ask the questions few previously dared voice.” In other words, questions of closure. “Should this church be used for worship each Sunday in the future? Can we re-designate for occasional use – weddings, funerals, harvest and Christmas? Can we formally close, and recognise the building’s importance as a local heritage asset… Dare we contemplate allowing our building to become perhaps a beautiful ruin?”
She concludes, “Let’s invest in some, reinvent others, and dare to let some quietly stay closed for ever.”
I wonder how you respond to this provocation – particularly if some of the churches facing closure would be in a community near to your heart?
Is there another way?
Someone once told me that one of the great dangers facing the institutional church is that you can have a perfectly balanced budget which, in the context of decline, makes perfect sense year on year – until, eventually, the budget reduces to zero and nothing at all is left.
We have to be honest about the scale and reality of decline among mainline denominations in the UK. But surely the call of the Christian is to hope – not in bricks and mortar, but in God’s ability to renew and restore…including the possibility of restoration and renewal in church communities that have long seemed precarious in terms of future survival.
This is a hope that God can meet us in small as well as large gatherings; singing a cappella as well as with skilful accompaniment; that he can send His Spirit in a musty village church just as much as a vibrant summer conference. But we do really have to hold onto this hope, and step forward in faith and expectation.
As I write this blog, Christ Church in Oxford is about to hold a special online service commemorating three hundred years since John Wesley arrived in Oxford as a student at the college; he would be ordained in the cathedral five years later. The history of Methodism is a complex one; years of explosive growth have now given way to a challenging picture in terms of future viability. I recently read a review of David Hempston’s book, 'Methodism: Empire of the Spirit', which included this quote from Hempston: “Mainline denominations decline as they make fewer demands on their own members, have no very obvious recruitment mechanism, and steadily lose ground to new, more energetic movements.”
I think one of the reasons ReSource exists is to hold out hope that any church community, anywhere, can deepen its encounter with the living God and move from stagnation to growth, because of the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. The earliest disciples were a small and ramshackle group, but they were filled with power from on high and went on to transform the lives of those around them. But this was never merely ‘Sunday churchgoing’ (not that such a phrase would have made any sense in the early church) – rather, a confident embrace of a totally new way of life.
God still offers this transformed existence to his people. Arguably, coronavirus offers an opportunity for churches to shake off religiosity and rediscover what is truly important.
When it comes to the plight of church buildings with questionable futures, my prayer is that coalitions of Christians, even from across the denominations, might come together to preserve their local place of worship. Not for the sake of the building itself, but for the sake of the opportunity it offers for worship as well as service in that community, and also for the link it represents with our nation’s Christian heritage. Then, small groups of disciples might see the fire of faith reignited across towns and villages, suburbs and new developments – and the dry bones of church buildings might find renewed life, fulfilling their original purpose, and shining with the light of Christ.