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Change or Die

Dave Tomlinson

DAVE TOMLINSON on the challenge facing a dying church

Fchurch.jpgIt's no secret that churches are now in trouble across the western world, haemorrhaging members at an alarming rate. However, the big surprise to many people is the widely documented rising tide of different forms of spirituality there. It seems that people are no less spiritual in their outlook, but simply looking elsewhere for sustenance.

This is no time for defensiveness or licking of wounds. Instead of pulling up the drawbridge, we must recognize the exciting times we are living in, and respond to the new challenges and opportunities with imagination and hope. I would like to suggest three broad tasks facing churches that wish to change rather than die.

1. Rethink and reinterpret the Christian faith for the 21st century.
The image of an essentially masculine, transcendent deity 'out there' somewhere else, 'up in heaven' ordering the affairs of the world is deeply problematic when, for example, we require an ecologically sensitive theology that affirms an understanding of divinity as profoundly present within creation. The same approach can be extended to argue that God is equally manifest in both masculine and feminine; and that God is present within churches and beyond churches, within the Christian Gospel but never exhausted by it; that invited or uninvited, recognized or unrecognized, felt or unfelt, God is present everywhere. In order to find God afresh it is vital to deconstruct the images of God, which become idolatrous when they are absolutized or taken literally. We need constantly to rethink and reinterpret our God-talk for today's world.

2.  To reconnect with the spiritual heart of Christianity.
In the eyes of many people, the church is no more than an empty, archaic structure. If it is to survive, we need to reconnect more effectively with the hidden heart of Christianity, to rediscover the mystery that forms its light and wisdom. In what ways can the reality of Christ and his kingdom impact the burdened psyche of postmodern urbanites? How can the liberating love of Christ inspire us to ensure a future for our grandchildren and great grandchildren in a world that 'bears man's smudge and shares man's smell', as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it.

The present challenge is to shift from extrinsic faith to intrinsic faith, based on an existential grappling with the reality of God, who seeks continual and dynamic incarnation in creation, society and human consciousness. We cannot save our churches through budgeting, publicity, seeker services, more evangelism, technology or good-old-Bible preaching. The future hinges on a constant reinterpretation of, and re-engagement with, the spiritual heart of our tradition in the light of new cultural insights and sensibilities.

3.  To create open, empowering Christian communities.  
In a fractured world where many starve for relationships, the capacity to offer a place to belong is an immense asset. David Tacey makes the observation that it is the innate human need for community that will build religion again. But it needs to be the kind of community that is inclusive and affirming, liberating, and empowering - church without border controls - where people can belong and contribute to the life of the community without necessarily feeling able to tick doctrinal boxes. Once we treat conversion as a process, and allow identity to be governed by participation rather than doctrine, some very liberating and attractive forms of church can begin to emerge.

Jesus created community wherever he went. His energetic presence captivated people, and they came for healing, for wisdom, for hope and liberation, for a vision of what might be, for the challenge to be different, for a fearless response to oppressive authorities, for the mysterious presence of God, for the warmth and empowering energy of kindred spirits. They came. And his was no puritanical community; Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors, prostitutes, publicans  and others on the fringes of society.

Christian mission over the next decade will require kingdom-orientated communities, places of radical inclusion and empowerment. These should say: You are welcome - whatever your ethnic or cultural background, however you look or dress, whether you are a man or a woman, gay or straight, whether you earn a pittance or you're worth a fortune, whether you have kids, can't have kids, don't want kids, whether you are full of faith or riddled with doubts, whether you feel hopeful or fearful, gregarious or withdrawn - YOU ARE WELCOME!

Will churches change or die? The choice is ours.

Dave Tomlinson