Saturday, September 01, 2007

Encyclopedia editor says CofE has become irrelevant

"'The church's preference for commitment over numbers has made it increasingly irrelevant,' says David Self."

Now, let's be clear. I don't agree with much of what this article has to say. It is like a physician correctly describing a patient's symptoms and then incorrectly identifying the cause.

Here are the symptoms the author correctly notes:
Obviously, rival Sunday attractions also hastened the process of change, but by the end of the century the Church of England had largely become a "members only" organisation. Go to any parish church and the notices ("See Sue for tickets", "Tell Pamela if you can help") indicate that everyone knows everyone and newcomers are not expected. Even cathedrals model themselves on suburban parishes, nurturing their regular congregations. Attend debates at the church's parliament or general synod and you witness an inward-looking body.

Now here is where he gets the diagnosis wrong:
If the church prefers commitment to numbers, that is its prerogative. If, on social issues, it wishes to be out-of-step with public opinion, that is its decision. If, as a result, it appears irrelevant, it must not be surprised if it loses the perks of being part of the establishment.

Commitment does not have to be the opposite of numbers. In fact, some churches that have the highest demands for commitment are also the largest and fastest growing. Take for instance this mission statement from Willow Creek Community Church: "The mission of Willow Creek Community Church is to turn irreligious people into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ." And they have done it—by the thousands!

Here is another instance of the author's misdiagnosis:
The rise of the parish communion was not the only manifestation of the church's changing nature. Until 1967, many "low church" parishes were simply churches without a lot of candles, vestments and ritual. In that year, at a short congress, the evangelical leader John Stott set out a new agenda. The evangelical wing of the church awoke to preach biblical truths with a new passion and, often, a requirement that its members should be "born again".

In other words, the author suggests that churches that followed John Stott in preaching biblical truth and requiring real commitment became irrelevant. What the author (amazingly) fails to realize is that the evangelical churches in Britain who followed John Stott's lead are virtually the only ones displaying any growth and vitality.

It is precisely the churches that have failed to preach biblical truth and require commitment that have become inward looking and irrelevant. The author evidently prefers the days when churches used Matins (instead of Holy Communion) as the primary service and used an older prayerbook that allowed people to say things they didn't really understand. In other words, when the church used to be irrelevant, it was really relevant. Huh?

Growing churches sometimes say that their mission is to be "high impact, high commitment" congregations. These congregations are committed to having a high impact in reaching their communities, and they stress a high level of commitment from those who become "fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ." The problem with the "irrelevant" British churches the author cites is that they have long ago lost any desire to be "high impact." They are not so much irrelevant as dormant.

In noting that the church is "out-of-step with public opinion" on social issues, the author appears to mean that the Church ought to follow the direction of the culture in social and moral issues instead of challenging it. Again, he could learn something from the American experience, where churches right now are at a watershed. The mainline churches that are following the culture are shrinking. The churches that are counter-cultural in their moral and ethical teaching are growing.

And as for the "church's preference for commitment over numbers"—it doesn't take a high level of commitment for people to show up at the same club meeting every Sunday morning; it could just mean they are a bunch of poor dweebs with no place else to go. If these congregations really were "high commitment," they would be evangelizing their cities, ministering to the poor, and involved in world mission. Churches that are heavily involved in that kind of outreach don't shrink; they grow.

My recommendation is for the author to take a couple of years to become seriously involved with a congregation like All Souls, Langham Place or Holy Trinity, Brompton, and really embrace the faith they teach. Then let's see if he still agrees with his own article.

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