How ever will the church survive?

Photo of the tower of Pisa
Image by bamshad CC:By

Once upon a time a man – who turned out to be so much more than that – did something amazing and entirely unique. Before he did this thing he taught things which turned the way of thinking at that time on its head. After he did his amazing act he left his friends to become the vehicle through which his action and teachings would turn the world upside down. This was deliberate on his part because he wanted something to grow beyond himself. It took them a few days but shortly after he left, his friends started to tell others about him and what he had done. They began to share what he had taught them and to put it into practice. The world – as it was then and as it is now – was not really ready for this stuff but it got it anyway and then some of it really got it.

So began a movement which caught on like a virus and leaked across borders, under radar, crossed boundaries, leapt social structures and was as divisive as it was revolutionary. It broke the rules, ignored the social constructs and it began to change the world.

As time went on the movement grew too large for it to continue as it was. So it began to evolve. Not everyone agreed

As time went on the movement grew. It grew too large for it to continue as it was. So it began to evolve a structure. It began to develop rules to ensure this structure was the most helpful to everyone. Not everyone agreed with the rules and so the movement divided and fought among itself time and again. Eventually that division caused the movement to change. It became something that “we” owned – not that we were simply part of. It became something in and of itself that we sought to keep going. We had meetings, conferences and discussion after discussion about how it was to survive, what form it would take if it did and who would be included. We turned helpful reminders into ritual, guidance notes into canon and agreements into tantamount law.

Suddenly the movement had movement and life of its own. It still fragmented and divided the core structure always survived in all the fragments. There were wise people at the top, they made the decisions. There were even wiser people just below them – they advised on how to make those decisions and helped people to implement them and there was everyone else below who carried out those decisions and had to live with them. There were defined routes for promotion from the ranks and this was good because it enabled all various parts of the movement to continue and develop and grow.

Some people thought all the various parts did was develop and grow in the shape they already had. To those people this was not growth but expansion

Except that some people thought all that did was allow the various parts to develop and grow in the shape they already had. To those people this was not growth but expansion. So they tried – as many had before – to change the movement so it could grow and not just expand. The problem was the only model they had to do this in was the existing one and a large part of their efforts – like many before – ended up being absorbed into the core part of the movement and while eventually this did cause the movement to change, it still resembled how it looked for many centuries. On the face of this some called for radical change. Drastic measures which would – they felt – cause the movement to rediscover its radical, rule-breaking roots. But there were people in the movement who felt this was too much too soon. This was old ground for the movement and so it did what it had always done – divided, split and continued. Some parts of it argued with each other over which part really represented the movement but in general a lot of people carried on as before and so did the movement.

During all this time, the man that started the whole thing would take hold of one of the people in the movement and open their eyes to something which needed doing

During all this time, the man that started the whole thing would take hold of one of the people in the movement and open their eyes to something which needed doing. That person – often discouraged by others in the movement – would suddenly find themselves driven to do something to do the thing which needed doing. Sometimes others in the movement caught sight of this and joined in. Sometimes this action became an organised part of the movement and was absorbed into the structure and rules. Sometimes this took a long time. In all cases though the thing being done was “seen” by one person or maybe two or three and it was they who started doing it before any official name was assigned or rules were created.

And so the work was continuing all the time

And so the work which was started by the man at the beginning, continued by his friends and spread with the movement was continuing all the time. Amid all the division, discussion, theories in the movement. Despite any attempt to own and brand the work, it refused to be defined, to be described or to be marketed. One by one, person to person, conversation to conversation, meal to meal, hand to hand the man who started it all saw his work spread – just as he had always intended. No matter how many missions were created, no matter how many studies were made, no matter how many attempts were made to nail it down, the work – like life itself – broke out and then we started to see that – all along – it was the work not the movement which changed lives. It was the work, not the movement which broke the rules. It was the work, not the movement which changed the world. And it wasn’t the wise people at the top who did the work nor the wiser people in the middle. It wasn’t even the rest of the people. It was all of the people who did it. There was no special requirement, no training course, no length of service or special status to achieve before a person could do this work. All they needed was to see it, to hear it and to do it. Some of the work was easier to do within the movement’s structure and some of it wasn’t but little of it actually needed the movement for it to happen. In fact it was the other way around.

Nice story – so what?

In case I’ve messed up with my analogy. The man at the start is Jesus and the movement is what we call the Church.

There are too many discussions about whether the church will survive, how it will survive and how it can best do this is an ever changing world. In my experience all the ones I have seen discuss the wrong thing. All of them discus the survival of the movement – or their particular part of it. Few seem to consider the history of the work as done by individuals not a movement. Whenever something new is used to do the work of God, it is always turns out best when it is done by individuals. We don’t need Christian TV channels, we need TV makers who happen to be Christian, we need Christians who relate their faith to what they see on TV. We don’t need Church social media plans, we need individual Christians using social media and living out their faith-lives in that context. The work of God, began by Jesus and empowered by the Spirit will continue it as it always has done: one person at a time. The denominations, the individual congregations, the structures can all continue. the discussions, the flat out arguments and the division can continue. Historically these are less important to the continuing work of God than the chat you have to the person in the bus queue or the concern you show for a colleague, or the helping hand you give to a person who thinks everyone has forgotten them. We need to stop thinking about how this piece of work could revolutionise the Church and/or the world and think about how best it can change the world of the person in front of us and next to us.

So here’s the problem: As long as we confuse the work and the church as the same thing, we will always fall into the trap of assuming the work can only come from and through the movement

So here’s the problem: As long as we confuse the work and the church as the same thing, we will always fall into the trap of assuming the work can only come from and through the movement. When the opposite is true however, it’s risky. It means we have to stop waiting for someone else to tell us what to door how to do it and instead learn from their experiences while remembering those are not our experiences. It means we have to rethink our culture of thinking each type of work can only be done by those who are a) experts in it and b) usually paid to do it. There’s a place and scriptural principle for the movement to pay wages so somebody can dedicate a larger percentage of their focus to God’s work but it doesn’t mean the rest of us are off the hook. It also makes it easier to stop segmenting our lives into “spiritual” and “non-spiritual” because there’s no such division. Our faith becomes a liquid surrounding, encompassing and running through all our life not just a set of actions we do at set points in it. It doesn’t mean we have to be super-spiritual people who mention Jesus in every conversation. It doesn’t mean we have to walk around showing the world how to live by not actually living at all. It means we should allow God to open our eyes in any situation. It means we should allow our hearts to be driven by what he shows us. It means that instead of allowing ourselves to feel guilty about not having some ability or skill we should realise that the abilities God has used to further his work the most are listening, caring, asking and doing. All of this can and should be done within the context of fellowship within the Church but none of it requires the Church for it to happen. The Church will survive, it always has. The work will continue, it always has but lets move away from this unspoken fear that the latter can only happen when the former begets it.

In a month’s time many will celebrate what is sometimes called the birth of the Church. I will join them but I will remember that Pentecost wasn’t the birth of the movement, it was the start of the work. Which is far more important.