Not a ruin

(I thought I’d leave the election until later – and then I thought I couldn’t bear not to rant today – and then I thought again. So you will get my doubtless unoriginal musings on the election at some point, but not till after Christmas.)

My Scripture Union Bible Reading Notes are written by various people, as you’d expect. Recently a Presbyterian minister and lecturer from New Zealand who shall remain anonymous annoyed me with comments about the modern Western church. He finished with this on Psalm 80, a psalm of lament following exile: “Again, his [God’s] vine, his church, is in ruins. We join the psalmist praying that God will shine his face on us and restore us…”

I should admit that I know nothing about the church in New Zealand. I should also admit that the support for President Trump by some professed Christians in America appears to me to be damaging to the cause of the gospel.

But I’ve heard or read too many complaints about the state of the modern church, in these or similar terms. Some people (not the commentator) even talk about “dead churches” – a comment which one would surely need clear divine guidance to dare to make about any gathering of people in the name of Christ.

The modern Western church, as far as I can see, is not in ruins. The church I attend is not in ruins, the diocese is not in ruins, the Church of England is not in ruins, and the Christian community in Britain generally is not in ruins.

Churches in Britain are less well attended than they were eighty or a hundred years ago. They are sadly fragmented. Many of them are currently agonising publicly and painfully over the issue of same sex relationships. (Given the various things God has allowed to remain in His Bible, this is not surprising.) They’ve been unable to stop society’s drift towards consumerist idolatry and sexual permissiveness.

And they’re very far from perfect.

But I have never regularly attended a church which I didn’t feel was a welcoming, loving group of sincere and hardworking Christians.

And when I look round, I see churches in Britain worshipping in a variety of joyful ways; running foodbanks, night shelters and toddler groups; challenging government but also frequently working with it; raising money and awareness in respect of the poor here and abroad; supporting refugees; engaging with atheism and secularism; caring for their members and a lot of other people; and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus in word and deed. I see a Pope and Archbishops of whom I am proud.

Comments such as the one above seem to carry an “if only”, a looking back to the past glory days of the church and (often, connectedly) the nation. The song that includes the lines “Set your church on fire/ Bring this nation back” from the Rend Collective, for example. I am nostalgic for the past in some ways, but I think this is mistaken.

Do we really want the church of the past, where only the clergy preached or led services? Where some of these clergy were free to carry out acts of sexual abuse? Where children were frightened with tales of hell, and Jesus was a white man with blond hair?

And do we want the nation of the past where unmarried mothers were compelled to give up their children; where racial discrimination was legal; where anyone with special needs was shut away in a home?

The modern church has fewer members than it used to. This is a good thing, because the people who attend nowadays are there because they want to be. They don’t just “come” to church – they are the church, worshipping, serving, and puzzling as to how the gospel fits into modern life.

They are not ruined, and they are not dead.

I like the modern church, on the whole.

But on the other hand, before I get too comfortable, maybe these criticisms are all prophetic words. Anyone who reads the Old Testament must have noticed the prophets there almost exclusively condemned, criticised and warned of punishment, and the modern church is often compared to the nation of Israel.

Maybe, contrary to all the above, our cosy materialism or theological softness/hardness is due for judgment? Who knows?

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS Next week, the Christmas traditions of Ragaris, including some not-previously-shared character facts…

  • Matthew Perry

    13th December 2019 at 5:44 pm Reply

    I think that the song you refer to (not a favourite of mine) is about going back to the purity and enthusiasm of the 1st century, though any reading of the NT letters tells us that they too had their problems.

  • Judith Anne Renton

    13th December 2019 at 5:52 pm Reply

    Great piece again
    One small point (from a self confessed Rend Collective fan) the lyrics are
    Build Your kingdom here
    Let the darkness fear
    Show Your mighty hand
    Heal our streets and land
    Set Your church on fire
    WIN this nation back
    Change the atmosphere
    Build Your kingdom here
    We pray
    I think it is more about bringing more of God’s love to the world that does not see it – and I think a change of atmosphere is also needed – away from an atmosphere of racism, distrust and hatred.

    Just saying!

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