Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

What future for the Church?

A beautiful chapel on Orkney Italian prisoners of war built and decorated so that they could worship while imprisoned.

St Magnus Cathedral on Orkney took 300 years to build.

Augustine United Church - An old building but a relevant ethos for today.
The sad reality
We have been wandering around Edinburgh and Scotland. There are Church buildings galore!

  • Some have become community halls, theaters or restaurants, their intended purpose of worship long since forgotten.
  • On our bus trip to John O'Groats we saw many church buildings for sale, and others just deserted, with grass growing all around them, vegetation in the cracks of the edifice and in some cases doors left ajar.  Obviously they have ceased to function.
  • The many still functioning Churches we have passed look locked up, enclosed fortresses with outdated noticeboards trying to entice people in. 
  • We attended the local Church, (Tron Kirk) a large building which has at one time been quite popular but is looking past its prime. It is in the centre of a big population. There are high rise housing estates. There are streets and streets of quite intense close housing. It is the "establishment" denomination in Edinburgh, and yet on a Sunday morning there were only around 30 people there at best and most quite elderly. 
  • The Church there is doing some good things to make contact with the local population. We were quite impressed when we first read about it. But... the services and ethos are really not much progress on the 1950's. They are there to "win souls"... to add to those attending Church. The motivation for any community contact was to "get them in" not service out of unconditional love. The second (and last) Sunday we were there a guy who preaches frequently there, gave a sermon which consigned those who did not believe his interpretation of the passage to hell. We left at the end of the service not hanging around for a cup of tea. It was so irrelevant and old theology, we sadly literally felt repelled and just wanted out of there.
  • I see much modern "successful" Christianity as a real distortion of the way of Jesus.
  • Before I left Dunedin I wrote directly to more than 50 local Churches on behalf of the Night Shelter to see if they, through youth groups, women's groups or whatever could participate in raising some money, even a little bit, for our Night Shelter. It would be an easy task, just raise $100 or some similar amount toward caring for the homeless, the needy - a very biblical cause endorsed by Old Testament instructions through to Jesus' Good Samaritan story in the Gospels. As far as I know these letters have produced no response.... from over fifty congregations of Christians - What sort of discipleship are we producing? I am pretty disillusioned by that! For me followers of Jesus that do not want to respond to the needs of the homeless in their midst are not being true to their Lord.
A good example...
After our experiences with the local Kirk, we looked on the internet for Progressive Christian Churches. We discovered the Augustine United Church, a congregation of the United Reformed Church in the UK. We knew that many congregations from our movement had joined this group, so decided to attend there. It was an inner-city Church just around the road from the Castle and Greyfriars (which they have a partnership with) and a half-hour bus ride from my son's house. I loved its ethos.   We enjoyed the service which was made easy for visitors to navigate their way through and feel at home in. I would probably have added a bit of variety to it, but it was thoughtful, relevant and we felt at home. We will go back. There were around thirty there, and mostly older folk, but some were away at a conference. I have long given up on the idea that big numbers mean a church has the "Truth".  This community, though of course not perfect, rang bells with me. It is inclusive, takes into account modern Biblical scholarship, has a handle on relevant language, relates in a positive way with its community and is aware of justice and environmental issues. But...The numbers are low and elderly.... the building maintenance costs are high..... And for the most part the world ignores it.
What is the future?I ask the question... "What is going to happen to the Church?"
- My wife says of the empty and for sale Churches - "Probably the real followers of Jesus left them and are following Jesus in their own way."
Having spent my life as a minister I can look back and know I have helped others live more full lives. Church ministry has given me a base from which to make a difference in the world so I do not regret that.  But have I wasted a lot of my energy propping up an establishment that is bound to die?
I say the future lies in four areas...

  • Jesus' followers need to be radical servants in the world and get back to compassion as the core of what it means to follow Jesus. ("Be compassionate as God is compassionate." Luke 6:36 )
  • Jesus followers need to be inclusive in outlook.. seeing their way as one spirituality among others.
  • Jesus followers should be catalysts for good in the community working with people of good will to enrich human living, to work for justice and to encourage community. (breaking down walls and building bridges)
  • Jesus followers need to divorce ourselves from the perspective that the point of being Christian is to get to heaven.  Transformation of life now is our calling.
Today I visited Edinburgh Museum and learned of the disruption of Scottish life and Church that the reformation had in its day. A new understanding of faith and "Church" emerged and brought real changes in the way people saw the Church. We need a profound reformation that is just as disturbing!  ... And maybe  communities of "real" followers of Jesus will have a place in the world of the future.

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