A good question: Scrap the Church?
One question, four answers
Four events run by the United Reformed Church at this summer’s Greenbelt festival explore the same question: Scrap the Church? Reform joins the debate. Is the Church what Jesus had in mind when he talked of the kingdom of God? Does it do the work of God, or get in the way?
‘Scrap the church business’
I struggle with this question. Many of us will have felt frustration at the muddle of followers we call Church, yet remained as part of that body, for we feel called together to give expression to the Gospel, however incompletely. “Scrapping” the Church sounds harsh, however tempted I’ve felt at times.
But my unease with this question is also that it does not feel radical enough. I’m tired of talking about church. It often feels like we’ll never be ready to do mission. There will always be one more structure that needs refining, one more initiative that needs completion, before we’re prepared to go out into the world. It’s as if, as soon as we hear the word “church”, we can’t help look inward, however outward our goals might be.
So it’s a great question, because I have had to wrestle with it in so many ways. I have come to the conclusion we are absolutely correct: we will never be ready to do mission. We never can be ready, for mission always includes risk – something our culture increasingly struggles with. Yes, we need to always be open to adapting our understanding and practice of church, to make our buildings fit for purpose and to be equipped by creative resources; we just have to stop kidding ourselves that these things are the panacea, and acknowledge they are more often used as a shield of busyness to distract us from what is really at hand.
For the last two years I have experienced the blessing of ministering as a pioneer in south Manchester. I no longer have these distractions. I have no responsibility for a congregation or a building; meetings or structures do not bog me down, and neither do I have a plan to deliver. I have been given what the Northumbria Community calls in their rule of life “availability and vulnerability”. (If you’re not sure whether that sounds scary or liberating, you’re right, it’s both.)
So do I want to scrap the institution, the buildings, the initiatives, our most treasured traditions? No! But the business by which we justify ourselves and which prevents us doing the most important part of being a Christian, building new relationships with people, that definitely needs to go.
So whatever your particular kind of church busyness, if it is stopping you from having the time to make new relationships in your community, if you’re using activity to justify yourself, or to hide behind, then I’d urge you to scrap it and do something far less productive for Christ’s sake.
Mike Walsh is a United Reformed Church pioneer minister in south Manchester
‘There’s no need to scrap what cannot survive’
“The Church” is an enormous concept, paradoxical in power and vulnerability, in compassion and cruelty. It holds together triumphalism and humility, service and empire. It includes the global power of the Catholic Church and the life of tiny dissenting conventicles. It manifests itself in the life passages of millions of people and is irrelevant to millions more.
The UK in 2016 is a diverse and secular post-Christendom society, increasingly resisting the privileging of one religion, and of one denomination. For those indifferent to organised religion, this is simply a matter of justice in a changing society. For believers, reflecting on the origins of Christianity and the “throne and altar” ecclesial bodies which grew from Constantine’s “conversion” of the Roman empire presents us with a challenge to step aside from the familiar and turn again to the spirit of that radical religious teacher who became the Christ.
The life and teaching of Jesus was profoundly disturbing to the religious conventions and powers of his time. His repudiation of violence and the hierarchies which it serves, his turning away from the pursuit of wealth, respectability and status, and above all, his pointing to both a future and indwelling “kingdom” of inclusive love, far removed from the expectations and interests of establishment – these things made him an outcast. It was a life lived at the margins.
There are a growing number of Christians for whom this model of the life and teaching of Jesus is the vital point of reference and a yardstick for the cohesion of their common life and purpose. Whether by radical action or by tacit dissent, they are yeast in the dough of the very idea of Church. They speak to an unchurched generation who seek nourishment for their spiritual natures but are not attracted to traditional identities of prescription and proscription.
What is outmoded cannot survive. There will be no need to “scrap” a declining model of church but rather to read the signs of the times and, casting off comfort, evolve into transformative communities. It may take time and be met with resistance but it is already happening.
The community of worship and practice to which I belong does not call itself a church, but a Society of Friends. As a non-creedal body without sacraments, Quakers do not tick all the boxes of orthodoxy, but as a body of believers waiting in equality upon the Spirit, we may hope – as will many who sit outside “Church” – to be part of the future Way.
Jill Segger is Associate Director of the thinktank Ekklesia
‘Churches can reflect the glory of God’
Let’s face it, the Church gets things wrong. Churches everywhere are run by humans. Sometimes they make mistakes, they abuse, they control, they shut the door on people Jesus would expect them to welcome with open arms. Things are not as they should be. That’s the whole point of our faith – we all fall short. But should we scrap the Church entirely because it isn’t perfect? God forbid.
In Jesus’ final hours, his prayer as recorded in John 17 was for the Church: “I in them and you in me,” he prays, “so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
For many people, Church does reflect the hope that Jesus speaks of. But there are some who claim they love Jesus but Church just doesn’t do it for them – and this is increasingly the case for millennials. Some interpret my generation’s exodus from Church as the result of churches being simply out of date and not cool enough to attract and keep young, hip Jesus lovers.
But it’s not just the structure and style of Church that put people off – just look at the success of the Sunday Assembly, the secular congregation now meeting in 70 places in eight different countries around the world. They describe themselves as building “communities that help everyone live life as fully as possible” through singing songs, hearing inspiring talks and creating community together. This all sounds pretty familiar to me. It sounds like church. But spot the difference: Christ’s Church points not just to ourselves but to something greater, Christ, the Son of the living God, who came to bring life in all its fullness. Songs and inspiring talks and community can never be the end goal.
When churches become distracted by positions or rotas or having the latest music kit for the worship team or confuse being Christian with being middle class, we need to have a word with ourselves and maybe scrap some of the ways in which we are doing things, but not scrap the whole thing altogether.
We have to recognise that churches can be broken. But we must also celebrate, because when they unite – as so many of them do – when they shine bright, reflecting the glory of God, bringing hope where there is despair, speaking words of wholeness and life into broken lives, bringing healing to broken communities and light where there is darkness, there is nothing more beautiful.
Chine McDonald is Director of Communications and Membership for the Evangelical Alliance
‘We can’t scrap it if we don’t have it’
Some of the writers of the Christian scriptures share their vision of a global, inclusive and welcoming community that comes into being through the body of Christ. This community is central to God’s plan to birth the new, staggeringly and achingly beautiful, world. Sadly, we find something very different today: a world that is environmentally, politically, socially and economically exhausted. What went wrong? Where is this “Church” that is supposed to do such good? We can’t scrap it if we don’t have it.
The New Testament Greek word ekklesia, usually translated “Church”, does not refer to church as we know it today. The Christian ekklesia (literally “the called out”) was the community of rather uncouth and radical early Jesus-followers who had come out of the world. ‘World’ here does not suggest the earth, or communities of love; rather, it is a global non-world defined in “The Globalisation Project”, a report commissioned by the Evangelical Church in Germany, as “an all-encompassing global reality serving, protecting and defending the interest of powerful corporations, nations, elites and privileged people, while imperiously excluding even sacrificing humanity and exploiting creation; a pervasive spirit of destructive self interest … the colonisation of consciousness … a spirit lacking in compassionate justice”.
This world crucifies Jesus because it quickly recognises in him an existential threat. Its own systems are so exquisitely unjust that it needs religiously sanctioned justifications to be followed. It requires ministers and liturgy and structures and theology to come up with inventive means of pacifying the poor and oppressed.
Imagine how irritating that Gospel-peddling, rabble-rousing Rabbi was, donkeying his way in from Galilee, questioning God’s good order, peace and bounty. Equally distasteful were his disciples’ claims God had justified this same man’s gospel by raising him from the dreaded cross. Empire cannot abide opposition – but the easiest way to destroy challengers is to co-opt them.
Soon the small ekklesiai of Jesus-followers buckled under the pressure to “make peace” with Rome. Surely we can work within the system? John of Patmos was mortified. So he urgently unmasked empire as a seductive whore who promises the good life and as a ravenous beast that devours any who dare oppose it. John is adamant: Do. Not. Compromise.
Nevertheless, the pressure was relentless. Soon the turn to Constantine would reframe the Church as the latest religion to become chaplain to Empire. Yes, there have been reformations, renewals and dissent. But the overwhelming fact of global climate disruption, insane wealth inequalities and broken political systems must surely give pause to those who think Church has been at all effective these 1,700 years. I think it’s high time we scrapped this empire-embedded institution we call Church. Jesus still calls us to come out of empire, to become his ekklesia once again.
Kevin Snyman is Mission Enabler for the United Reformed Church West Midlands Synod
This article was published in the July/August 2016 edition of Reform.