How are we to get ready for “all that”, while we’re still in “all this”?
Just recently I was asked to contribute an article to a publication entitled Church Without Walls. As you have probably figured out already, it is about what the church could or should look like post-pandemic.
There seems to be a general conviction that, when “all this” is over, a new “all that” will just be beginning. On the whole, I think, Christian leaders are seeing this as a time of opportunity. The word reset has become a part of the leadership vocabulary when discussing the possible futures of the church in Scotland, or indeed the UK as a whole.
There is also a fairly general if not universal conviction, that the landscape in which we will find ourselves is going to present us with some major challenges. For example, we don’t know what church will look like – and it would be dangerous to apply any ideas we have on that subject to the whole body of Christ.
Undoubtedly, there will be economic challenges as business attempts to adjust to the financial impact of the pandemic.
However, perhaps the biggest scar of all that the pandemic will leave will be on the mental health of society as a whole.
All of the above are changes and challenges over which we have very little control.
Change is not inevitable and not inevitably positive
There does seem to be a feeling that change in the church in the wake of the pandemic is inevitable and positive.
Whilst change might be desirable – certainly positive change! – it would be mistaken to believe that positive change or indeed any change at all in the way that churches function is inevitable.
In the first months of lockdown, I read a history of the Reformation which covered the first hundred years or so of the Reformation in Europe. Those hundred years produced one upheaval after another – including the plagues that affected whole societies. Ultimately, none of those challenges directly produced change in the church.
So, it is worth keeping a sense of historical perspective and acknowledging that, throughout its history, the church has seen persecution, plague and war on numerous occasions. What might be described as existential threats, in the end, didn’t impact that much on the basic configuration of the church.
Mostly, the church changes positively when, in response to the Spirit of God, we make changes. When “all this” is over and we enter into the “all that” that is around the corner, our hopes for positive change within the church should be rooted in that knowledge.
Positive change in the life of the church comes about when we make wise and godly decisions based on what the Spirit is saying and take into account the “all that” of the context in which we find ourselves. A changed or changing society does not in itself change the church in a positive way.
There is a possibility that we will just revert to doing what we have always done. Depending on context, that may or may not be a bad thing.
How do we embrace the kind of change we sense God wants to bring when our current “all this” turns to a future “all that”?
John the Baptist: preparing the world for change
John the Baptist lived at a time when God was changing the nation of Israel. In fact, he was the change agent, to use contemporary language.
Luke 3:1-20 records John’s preaching ministry and the responses of the people to whom he preached.
John’s message was one of change. You can’t preach repentance without being interested in change!
So, what can we learn from him?
Recognise the restrictive power of church culture
“Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.”Luke 3:8
When John preached to the people of Israel, some tried to convince themselves that they weren’t included in his challenge; they were Abraham’s descendants, after all.
John engaged with their thought patterns, warning them what not to say to themselves. Their culture-conditioned response was closing them down to the possibilities God was placing before them. They thought that their history guaranteed their destiny, when God was looking for humility.
It’s good to recognise and honour what God has done in the past, but when it produces entitlement-shaped thinking, it becomes a barrier to what God wants to do.
Make spirituality simple
“And the crowds were questioning him, saying, ‘Then what shall we do?’ And he would answer and say to them, ‘The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.’ And some tax collectors also came to be baptised, and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.’ Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, ‘And what about us, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.’”Luke 3:10-14
Asking yourself what you actually want people to do, is a question that brings focus to leadership. When asked what he wanted people to do, John was very clear in his response. It was simple.
It is tempting to become complicated in giving people spiritual direction, and often a lack of direction is down to a lack of clarity and simplicity.
It has to be said, as well, that people sometimes prefer complicated to simple. It’s one of the unhelpful patterns that can be found in some church cultures today. This can often be the case in charismatic church culture in particular (- I speak as a charismatic).
Make spirituality people-centred
Notice that this simple response John required was both practical and people-related.
Give away your shirt. Share your food. Don’t exploit people. Simple stuff. Easy to understand. Not always easy to do.
If the past eleven months or so have taught us anything, it has been the importance of practical, people-centred Christianity.
Some years ago, I was a school governor. On one occasion we were given some training. At the end of the session, the trainer recommended that, at the end of every governors’ meeting, we should ask and seek to answer one question: How will this affect the children?
We would do well to ask ourselves a question along these lines after every leaders’ meeting. If what we are doing doesn’t have the stated purpose of moving people closer to Jesus, it raises a question mark over what we are doing.
Open up to the Holy Spirit
“John answered and said to them all, ‘As for me, I baptise you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'”Luke 3:16
John didn’t stop there, however. He spoke of the Spirit who was still to come. And he spoke of Jesus, who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Our love for and focus on Jesus should bring us into an experience of the Spirit and His power, since Jesus is the baptiser in the Holy Spirit.
We are going to need the power of the Spirit more than ever after “all this” is over and we find ourselves in the “all that” that is to come. Let’s have a new openness to the Holy Spirit.
Expect a divine shake up!
“Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire … His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”Luke 3:9, 17
John spoke of trees being cut down and wheat being winnowed. Felled trees change a landscape. Winnowed wheat has had its impurities shaken out.
There is an aspect of what’s ahead that we have, and will have, no control over.
That aspect is the action of God. He knows what He is doing. We just have to trust Him. Whatever we think we know or don’t know about the future, trusting the One who knows the “all that” which is to come, is the main thing.