I am always encouraged when I read about leaders who are willing and able to offer sharp and critical assessment of their national or local churches.
Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that the Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, challenged the Church of England to consider “radical change” and “reinvention” or face extinction. In the same article, Archdeacon John Hawley warned that if the decline in attendance continued at the present rate, “There will be no Church of England in Lancashire by 2050”.
In my travels around the Anglican Communion I quite often hear about a need to grow and sustain the Church, and to protect the Church from dying out. Such comments, and the Telegraph article, prompts me to ask For what purpose should the Church survive? Just for the sake of the Church itself?
I was recently speaking with a Church leader who was pointing out a particular problem that needed addressing “to avoid bringing embarrassment to the church”. It troubles me deeply when I hear our leaders worrying more about maintaining the integrity of the Church and its structures than about the mission of God.
A Christian leader’s focus should be on supporting a church’s faithful members to become mature disciples of Jesus Christ, able to reach out to those outside the church walls with the Gospel.
So, do we really need to ensure the Church (as an institution) survives at any cost?
As an Anglican priest I believe that while there is inherent value in Church systems and structures, the primary purpose of any Church and its structures must be to support the goal of mission and not themselves to “become the goal of our efforts and consumer of our resources.”* Therefore, unless the Church exists for Christ and to honour God; unless the Church becomes the sign of the ‘Kingdom come’ and embodies the Kingdom values (living Christ’s Gospel of love, repentance and forgiveness); unless the Church remains missional and lives for those outside of itself, it will not survive and does not deserve to survive.
The hard truth is that, as Archbishop Michael Ramsey once said, “A Church which lives to itself will die by itself.”
It is good news then that Bishop Henderson’s challenge comes as part of a vision document which calls for heavy investment in youth groups, flexible patterns of worship and plans to grow new congregations to advance God’s mission in the communities. It also suggests the diocese should ‘unashamedly seek to bring others to faith in Christ’ and foster closer integration between different churches.
In short it is looking up towards God, across to others who are also involved in mission, and out to those in need—all using the framework of ‘Church’ to do so.
An institution that does this will not only survive, but flourish and, inevitably, will see its membership increase, for God’s mission and His glory.
*From the report of the 1976 Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Trinidad.