As we look at the landscape of the church across the four nations that we call the United Kingdom, we see an extraordinary set of contrasts. I recently returned from a visit to North Wales and was stunned to see the number of churches and chapels, boarded, for sale or already been used for other purposes. Even those churches which are still open are often hanging by a thread. I am aware of a substantial town in Scotland which until recently had six church of Scotland parishes. They are soon to become just one parish with the redundant buildings up for sale. This can look grim.
On the other hand, we can point to churches that are growing, many that are being planted, sometimes in formerly redundant buildings, and other missional experiments that are drawing people to Christ.
Much of the new life is taking place “under the radar”. It’s as if the new is emerging from the rubble of the old.
What are we to make of this confusing scene?
Sometimes leaders are required to hold their nerve and recognise that the new will take some time to become the norm, the future reality. As I was reflecting on these conflicting trends, a colleague, Jenny Sinclair, shared with me the text of a talk that she gave recently. I have extracted a small part of that talk to share with you.
Leadership and discipleship in the new era.
We are entering a new era.
Could it be that God is humbling the Church to bring it back to be more like the early Church?
Hastening the death of some things and at the same time bringing to birth new life?
What kind of leadership is needed in the new era?
How do we prepare our young people for uncertainty? What models of discipleship are we called to? The old church-centric mindset is always looking for fixes - the next training, the next course. That managerial language - "outreach", "margins", "service delivery", "engagement is difficult" - that's all part of the old era.
We need a new God-centric posture. One that watches and listens for where He is at work, and that recognises this may be outside "church" life. If congregations are able to act humbly and rebuild trust, things could get interesting.
It has been said there are two types of leadership: to manage that which currently exists and to manage that which is yet to exist.
This the place we need to be in. This kind of leadership formation is to become open-handed: "Take nothing with you" (Luke 9:3). It needs to be attuned to discernment. That involves reciprocity and mutual respect, trusting people in the neighbourhood, cultivating the leadership of local people, restoring their power. In terms of church leadership, that requires some "de-centring", and it requires established leaders to have some humility.
It will mean accompanying young people who are so hungry for meaning, supporting them to sense the Spirit moving in their life and to nurture vocation. It will mean contemplative practices. It will mean the people of the Church being willing to accept their own brokenness.
It will mean holding intergenerational spaces for group discipleship where people can be real, known and loved, to experience the Eucharist, encounter Scripture, ask questions and share stories, get to know each other and to speak freely without fear.
Finding God in the neighbourhood
I will end with a story of a pastor. His church is on a council estate, his congregation was stuck at thirty. He felt a failure.
Then he felt the Holy Spirit asking him to approach the neighbourhood to join him for a meal on a Thursday evening.
He's from a humble background himself, on a council estate, so he knows how to speak, and they trust him. He said to them "it'll be like church but not really", he said "I'm not shopping, cooking for you or washing up. We'll do it together." They decided on a roast dinner and they cooked and ate together. He said to them "if something is on your mind, just write it on a piece of paper and put it in the box. That was their introduction to prayer. He introduced a few lines from the Beatitudes. There was a moving conversation. They washed up together. It became regular a thing. They brought their kids and grandparents. It grew to more than a hundred and fifty in six months. They carried on cooking together and managed it themselves. Thursday Tea saw baptisms and the Holy Spirit was moving among them. So, it wasn't church as we know it but it's about being open to what's coming.