Last night whilst taking my third communion service of the day I found myself drawn to words from 1 Corinthians 16:
'Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.'
Be alert. Keep watch. Be steadfast. Be brave. Be strong.
Let love be the key, the guide, the reality, the reason and the means by which we exist.
And of course that love is the love that sees Jesus come to this world of ours to bring about the means by which we are reconciled with, and to, God. It is in the Good News of Jesus, the Christ, that we find the path through the dense forests and cloying mire that life demands we pass through.
The problem is that we, the Church, are no longer alert.
The watchmen on the walls are asleep or distracted by issues which, regardless of how important we are being called to think they are, are nothing but a distraction.
The people who bear the name 'beloved'; those who corporately are what is otherwise known as 'The Church' are hopping from foot to foot and turning this way and that as they try to be correct in terms of language, mindset and discipline. They vacillate and vary their beliefs to avoid being unpopular and yet, in doing so, present not a welcoming church but a weak Church!
The Church has set aside being brave for being popular and this means that we have become cowardly in the delivery, and the living out, of our faith. Our strength is failing and we are about to be overrun.
'But,' I am sure some will say, 'We are doing it in love. We are being strong because we stand against those in 'The Church' who oppose x and y and z. We are steadfast and courageous as we change our position and welcome those who otherwise might not be welcome; those who would find the traditional views of The Church unpopular and unwelcoming. We're just being creative.'
The problem is that what is being created is fluffy fiction not solid faith!
Last night, as I left the church building, one of those who had been present came to me and said:
'The Church is full of cowards. If we believed that Jesus holds the keys to life then surely we would have the courage to tell those we love about Him. Surely we would act to see them brought into relationship with God through the atoning work of the cross.'
He thought he was being controversial - I thought he was being exactly what I wanted as a response to the sermon last night.
And that's part of the problem with Church today. We focus on the wrong things and believe those who tell us that they are more important than the Gospel itself and when people stand for the real issues, they are told they are out of touch or confused or just a little bit bonkers!
When we find the average age increasing, the average attendance decreasing and the ability to pay the parish share a challenge, what do we do:
i. We start becoming fixated on 'bringing children and young people into church',
ii. We stop looking outside the building and gather in a fear-filled huddle inside it, looking out only for ourselves,
iii. We become more concerned with numbers (age, attendance, money) and, letting this become our focus, take our eyes off of Jesus,
iv. We see bringing people in as the solution to our ills and yet are unwilling to create for them a place of welcome, security and nurture: We take things of the menu to ensure that there's nothing difficult for people to swallow,
v. We promote diocesan, deanery and parish plans and call people to concentrate on whatever the fad those who are supposed to be leading have been convinced to take up as the salvation of the Church, and
vi. We rush off to see what thew 'successful' churches are doing in the hope that emulation and 'adopting best practice' will reverse the trends.
There are many more points I would like to add but by now, if you're anything like me, you're probably so depressed / angry / frustrated / (add your emotion here) that I would just be compounding the misery.
Love is the key; and that love begins, resides and ends in Jesus.
I'm going to be an even bigger pain over the next few days and week because I'm going to challenge colleagues and congregations and the man in the mirror before me and the person with the pointy hat and those who occupy the elevated positions within 'The Church'. I am fed up with being someone who is among a people who are discontent at 'managing decline' and yet resigned to that role. I am so grateful for that one person last night who has inspired me so (and got me out of bed and praying and reading my Bible and scribbling these thoughts at four in the morning) - this is the passion and the spur I desired to see in the church: one out of a population of 100,000 in our town: I think that's probably all we need to get the stone rolling away from the tomb!
Be warned (and be watchful)
Be afraid (very afraid)
Be blessed (and be a blessing)