A colleague recently asked, “What do you call a Vicar without a congregation?"
One of the responses was, 'The future!" The problem is that it seems that we might be a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom if some of what I've encountered is more than a small pocket of tired and apathetic clergy.
I find myself transported to memories of a clothes shop in Westcliff (nr. Southend on Sea). The windows had a transparent yellow sheet of acetate on the inside heralding a retail experience of days long past. In the window were ageing and fading items of stock and, as I recall, a multitude of dead flies! Looking in through the door I saw an ageing man with a white shirt, bow tie and red velvet waistcoat sitting behind the counter. Over the space of a couple of years the shop, and the man were there and then one day as I passed by I realised the yellow film, the aged stock and the man inside had all gone!
I stopped with a mix of sadness and surprise - the place, and the man, had become a sort of landmark; a shrine to something now gone, The shop was being refitted so I asked the man sitting outside having a brew where the owner had gone? "Dead," came the reply.
As the conversation continued it transpired that the grandson (who I was talking to) had been left the shop and was turning it into a record store. The family owned the store for three generations and he'd decided to have a go at keeping it on. Inside he showed me photographs of women with rolled up sleeved and men with boater, bowler and trilby atop their heads - all relatives - standing proudly outside the shop. Images of a retail experience now almost totally extinct.
Recently we've seen the demise of Toys 'r Us, Maplin and many other stores. Put to death by a changing culture and the electronic shopping experience. "It's cheaper on the internet," said one Maplin staff member. "They go to Amazon and buy the same product for less than half what we sell it for," said a former member of our local toy outlet. Our local specialist cheese shop has just closed its doors and others are noticeably moving the same stock around in increasingly wider retail areas in a hope that they will attract the diminishing passing trade.
The problem is that as Bob Dillon rightly proclaimed all those years back, "Times they are a changing!" and the response from many of us is to invent ways of getting people through the doors so we can talk of footfall and how we're generating revenue so we can pay our parish share and continue to exist in a relatively conflict free miasma until we can get our pensions and slope off into the sunshine.
It's like a local company who having found their orders slowly diminishing decided to rent out parking space at £60 a month. It didn't take them long to find they'd filled the area on offer and were £15k a year better off; an extremely prudent act which meant they stayed solvent. I see some of our churches doing the same with the renting out of the building for events - another example of prudent facilities management.
But what happens when we reach that moment where we see more people coming into our church buildings for events than we do in the delivery of the firm's core business? I'm happy to have a building which serves the whole community and provides a place for the Church to meet, but how do we still witness without it becoming hollow or mere token?
I'm strongly of the opinion that God had a shrewd idea about the changing cultures and as there is truly 'nothing new under the sun' (compare the Western world with the declining Greek or Roman empires) then the words of Jesus: "Truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do even greater things that I have done . . ."
We need to stop acting like the proprietor of an ageing and increasingly irrelevant retail outlet and start giving away what we have been given in the places where the people are to be found and in a way that communicates with today's culture.
I leave you with the key idea of NLP* :
'If you always do what you've always done then you'll always get what you've always got. So if it isn't what you want, CHANGE IT!'
This is not change for the sake of change but a call to public theology in the marketplace, where the people are, at a time when the people are there.
It's a call to be Church for the people who aren't Church and to make ourselves available at times and in places where the people are to be found (which almost certainly isn't on a Sunday morning!).
Or you can stick with for the 8:30am and 11:00am services and see who turns up.
*Neuro Linguistic Programming