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The State We're In

By Ian Davies.

(This article first appeared in the parish magazine of WEaunarlwyddParishChurch, Swansea. It is reprinted here, slightly adapted, by the kind permission of the author.)


Arriving on a Saturday morning a couple of Februarys ago in what seemed like the middle of nowhere (and right smack in the middle of the 6 Nations rugby!), my first question to the Archdeacon as I stumbled into the hotel lobby probably exposed my reluctance to be there: ‘Any chance of seeing Ireland-France?’ Oops! (although I did manage to sneak up to my room to see France’s two first half tries, I seem to remember...).

I suppose what I was really expecting when I arrived was a boring treatise on the importance of ‘stewardship’ (yawn). So it was quite a surprise to hear some of this famous “out of the box” thinking people talk about, without which the state of the Church in Wales as a denomination is sure to remain in its parlous state (and that much I think most people are beginning to realize, with Church attendance down by 31%, and the requirement to be financially self-supporting as parishes by 2009).

What we heard really did turn the usual dreary and uncomfortable stuff about increasing giving and stewardship on its head. So here goes.

On the Saturday afternoon, the speaker led a session on ‘current needs and opportunities’. His thesis was basically that churches have forgotten why they’re actually here, i.e. to change the world. A survival mentality is all too common, and many churches are reneging on their responsibility to bring people to Christ, let alone the wider mission to be ‘salt and light’ and to make the communities in which they’re set more like heaven.

I was actually excited (sad man that I am) that he was able to draw some insights from the sociology of organizations to explain the Church’s difficulties (material that I used to teach to public sector managers in my previous job as a university lecturer). You might have come across this before, but when an organization is in decline it tends to go through a number of stages:

<!--[if !supportLists]-->1.       <!--[endif]-->Denial that it’s happening (the head-in-the-sand, “it’ll go away” kind of response)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->2.      <!--[endif]-->Trying even harder - doing the things that got it into the mess in the first place, but with more enthusiasm (!)

<!--[if !supportLists]-->3.      <!--[endif]-->Intellectual acceptance that change is required - but in a state of emotional denial - which ends up in it still doing things in exactly the same way as it always has

<!--[if !supportLists]-->4.      <!--[endif]-->Searching for some kind of quick-fix, magic solution by importing something that might have worked somewhere else (like mounting yet another stewardship campaign), but not really addressing the overall long-standing problems

<!--[if !supportLists]-->5.      <!--[endif]-->(Finally) seriously accepting the need for radical change and being willing to do this.

The fact that the Representative Body of the Church in Wales (H.Q.) knows we’re facing disaster if something isn’t done can be seen as a gift from God. In his words, “we need to wake up and smell the coffee”. But he was also careful to acknowledge pockets of hope in the Province where people are trying new things. ‘Innovation’ is apparently the name of the game if we are to grow: the invention of new ways of doing and being Church (‘thinking outside the box’). Here are his interesting pointers for consideration:

Less Sunday, more everyday. The traditional idea of ‘the Lord’s people, around the Lord’s table, on the Lord’s day’ is becoming increasingly untenable as the main way of sustaining God’s Kingdom. Sunday increasingly needs to be viewed as supplementary to church happening elsewhere (see the idea of ‘cells’ or home groups below).

Fewer services, more serving. Meeting with other Christians is necessary and good, but as a means to nurture, feed and equip them for the main task of making disciples (the Great Commission at the end of Matthew. 28).

Less meeting, more eating (I love this one!). Churches need to be places of generous welcome and hospitality to those seeking Jesus.

Fewer congregations, more ‘cells’ (i.e. smaller home groups). To quote the speaker again, “Give in and admit it! Stop perpetuating the myth that two people and a dog equals a congregation ”.

Less believing and more belonging. Welcoming people wherever they are in their spiritual pilgrimage with an inclusive generosity of spirit. There’s no room or time or justification for any of us to be judgmental.

Less certainty, more exploration. “There’s a lot less we can be dogmatic about than we think”. We’re in a market place of ideas and honest debate and exploration of what Christianity means is so essential.

Less policing, more permission. This applies to our Bishops and senior church officers particularly, who need to be ‘permission-givers’ rather than preservers of institutional regulation.

WOW! If that list gets you thinking, join the club! The guy didn’t exactly mince his words. And it was tough to hear the challenge that “Churches are driven by little more than selfishness and nostalgia”, but (again) if we’re being honest...?

The good news is that our giving to God’s mission (financially and of ourselves) is in response to the generous, lavish, love and grace of God demonstrated in his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. ‘Giving’ is an essential part of Christian discipleship - not anything to do (really) with tried and tested or new fangled methods for extracting money out of people. One of the other main speakers at the conference, Robin Stevens, who was then National Stewardship Officer of the Archbishop’s Council of the Church of England gave us a parting quote from Father Charles Pegg:

To be an effective witness to the Christian faith in a church such as ours we urgently need money to carry on and expand its work. But we shall not get it, nor quite honestly do we want it, unless it comes as a result of an inner conviction that God is calling us to take a full share in the work of extending his Kingdom (1959).

Ian Davies

Vicar of Waunarlwydd, Swansea

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You are reading The State We're In by Ian Davies, part of Issue 48 of Ministry Today, published in March 2010.

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