As society continues to change there is real pressure on the church to adapt in order to stay relevant. Engagement will continue to drive growth and authenticity will be key to connecting with people. In observing both society and the place of the church within it and having served my own church at Hope for over two decades here are 12 observations I see as we move forward in a post Christian context.
These observations formed part of a wider talk on the church which I gave at Hope. You can listen to the talk in full here - www.hopechurchnottingham.org/2019care5/
• Expect the church to discover ways to integrate itself back into communities. Congregations will grow as communities are served and relevance is established. There is no short cut to this. The fact is a certain amount of transfer growth and immigration has propped up church statistics across the UK and particularly in our larger cities. The truth is seeing unchurched people come to faith is hard work which is why every church should have a strategy to reach the young - we must win the hearts and minds of the young or the church has no future. Period. NB the recent decision of the General Synod to reestablish the church in significant housing estates across the UK. is a great step forward in this regard.
• Expect the church to both shrink and grow at the same time. Nominal Christianity will see decline whilst at the same time a relevant form of faith will emerge. There will be fewer churches - but the churches that are left will exist because they are engaging.
• Expect to see an increase in the idea of people belonging before they believe. There will be the merging of boundaries and as churches form community hubs people will be attracted to join thus blurring the traditional areas of ‘in’ and ‘out’.
• The longings of the human heart are not going anywhere soon. If the church continues to address the big life issues: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? She will maintain her voice in the market place - but will have to compete with a growing plethora of other voices in a newly emerging interest in spirituality.
• Expect the church to move towards narrative based theology. Stories are the future - you can see this in the revival of cinema and the rise of mediums such as Netflix and You Tube. People are looking for experiences - stories are what best convey these experiences. Notice how Christian organisations are positioning themselves for this. NB the introduction of NT Wright as an article contributor for Premier Magazine is a case in point.
• Expect to see more churches put their services online as they seek to engage with people via the internet - the church is migrating towards the mobile phone for both millennial's and the young. NB the introduction of Churchome Global – A New Way to Church is a clear example of this emerging trend.
• Expect modern scholarship, archaeology, big data, and collaboration to change the way we both view, read and interpret scripture and move contemporary theology to a more Christocentric hermaneutic where the teachings and life of Christ trump other biblical texts and provide the platform for re- engagement and evangelism. Fundamentalism will continue to lose ground, especially in the West to a more progressive theology. NB - Andy Stanley’s latest book Irresistible is an example of this growing shift.
• Expect the church to start to take a greater check on its excesses as people grow increasingly suspicious of such fringe teachings like the prosperity gospel. NB Joyce Meyer's recent statement where she addressed some of her own excess highlights this shift.
• The church has dealt poorly with the issues of sexuality often acting as judge and jury over sexual ethics. Recent exposure of the churches hypocrisy in this area has caused deep and lasting damage and the scandal has embraced many of the mainstream denominations, with the Southern Baptist Convention in the US becoming the latest with 400 members facing sexual misconduct allegations resulting so far in 220 convictions. How can we expect to be heard if we are not able to keep our own house in order? A new humility will need to emerge from this brokenness if we are to rebuild trust. Such scandals arise at a time when the church does not have the same voice in mainstream culture - the outcome from this will be interesting to observe.
• Expect a softening in tone within the church towards sexuality as we go through a generational leadership shift and she tries to work through the biblical and pastoral responses to those who live with same sex attraction and those within the LGBTQ community generally. NB the latest report from the Ozanne Foundation shows that of 4600 people interviewed, 458 people had undertaken conversion therapy to try and ‘become straight’ and 91 people had attempted suicide. The issue of human sexuality in a broken world is deeply complex and challenging. If we don't want to be side lined as bigots or cast off as irrelevant then we will need to think deeply about our language and the way we speak and act otherwise we will lose our place at the table and the dialogue will continue without us.
• Expect a rise in the importance of connecting with the historical roots of the faith as people look for greater tangible realities in an ever secularised and shallow world. Orthodoxy will play a growing role in anchoring the tenants of faith around the historical Jesus whilst at the same time the 'fundamental' doctrines of denominations will become less important as people place experience over doctrine.
• Expect the church to engage in experiential Christianity - tying real lie issues to faith borne out of real experiences with God and his Spirit. Apologetics is not the answer to an experience hungry culture - encounters are. The church will continue to create atmospheres that allow for encounters with God.
So there we go - my 12 observations of the challenges and changes for the church as we move forward.
Like most things in life, to grasp a sense of the whole is to understand the big picture from which everything else make sense. The Bible is no exception to this. That’s why appreciating the Garden of Eden, the first story in Genesis as a metaphor for a temple is important. It’s the place where heaven touches earth – where divinity walks with humanity.
So it should come as no surprise to see many such images through the scriptures. The story of Jacob is such an example. In Genesis 28 we read…
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it…. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’ Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.
Broken down, the word Bethel means, Beth – House; El – God. Put together Bethel is the house of God – the place where humanity and divinity meet. It’s a picture of the temple.
As is the Tabernacle
Of which the writer of Hebrews speaks in this way…
They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow of what is in heaven. This is why Moses was warned when he was about to build the tabernacle: ‘See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.’
And the first Temple
Which was built by King Solomon after his father, David had been disqualified on the grounds of spilling too much blood in battle.
And the second Temple
Otherwise known as Herod’s Temple.
It was built in the years after the Exile from Babylon, starting around 538 BC and Herod began an extensive rebuilding project around 20 BC that lasted about 40 years. It was this temple that existed during the time of Jesus.
As you can see its all about temples because it’s all about heaven coming to earth. And we need temples to act as the conduit of the divine presence.
Creation itself (heaven and earth) is the ultimate temple – and this is what Jesus comes to save, as we are reminded by the words of Christ himself, ‘For God so loved the world (Cosmos) that he gave….’
The Temple – Garden, Tabernacle, Solomon’s, Herod’s are small working models of God’s ultimate intention. It is a microcosmos – a picture of something much, much bigger.
And so, as NT Wright notes, ‘The Israelites become the pilot project - as a sign to show what he will do for the rest of the world.
And then Jesus is born
Jesus is the new temple in person. He doesn’t offer the sacrifice – he is the sacrifice.
Where before heaven and earth is held together by the Torah and the Temple – it is now held together by Jesus and Spirt.
Again, Wright notes, ‘The ascension of Christ and the descending of the Spirit is temple imagery – when he ascends this is heaven and earth uniting – it is the joining of heaven and earth in his body. When the Holy Spirit descends - this is heaven coming down to earth.’
Which is referenced in places like here…
This is what the Lord says:
‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Where is the house you will build for me?
Where will my resting-place be?
And then Stephen picks up on this in the book of Acts ….
‘Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favour and asked that he might provide a dwelling-place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him.
‘However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
‘“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things?”
Indeed – what kind of house? What sort of temple is God looking for? So enter the church.
The church is the place where heaven and earth are meant to come together as microcosms of God’s divine intention and from there to colonize the earth.
And from where the reality of Christ’s mission unfolds – like here in Ephesians 1
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfilment – to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
And again here….
1 Corinthians 6
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honour God with your bodies.
And finally, the pinnacle of the divine intention unfolds with these words.
And then back to Ephesians.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. Ephesians 2
Until ultimately the story arrives at its final destination.
Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’
He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’
So, there we have it – the trustworthy and true climax of the divine story where heaven and earth become one – just like it was always intended to be.
And that’s what the Bible testifies to.
God is at work in the world reconciling all things to himself – this is the message of the Bible. The fact it can get lost in a smaller story of personal redemption and a heaven vs hell narrative is proof in point that we are overlooking the beauty and wonder of the good news.
As a pastor, I’d wrestled for many years over the divine intention and how that’s best understood and expressed. The traditional ‘gospel message’ of getting ‘saved’ in order to go to heaven when we die felt less compelling than in the days of my youthful passion as a hell fire preacher! God’s call to greatness; the concept of original glory coming before original sin, started to fire my own imagination as to the purpose of God in the world – something which has only grown stronger with time but still lacked a meta narrative to capture it. In more recent times I’ve been helped greatly by the work of N.T Wright in this regard opening my eyes to the purpose of God in creation and reconciliation more completely.
This, along with a deeper appreciation of Jewish history, customs and teaching and insights into Eastern thought and symbolism served to warm my own heart over this great and glorious story. Most striking of all this is the concept of Temple theology and the idea of the whole of creation being a temple inhabited by God. And we – you and I being the image bearers of God as we live deeply out of our identity of a new creation in Christ.
This temple theology is at the heart of the teaching of Wright and this article is indebted to his insight and thinking which embraces the whole of Scripture in the most wonderful way as he describes, what he calls the Divine Drama.
He sets the scene beautifully.
The emphasis I want to insist on is that we discover what the shape and the inner life of the church ought to be only when we look first at the church’s mission, and that we discover what the church’s mission is only when we look first at God’s purpose for the entire world, as indicated in, for instance, Genesis 1—2, Genesis 12, Isaiah 40—55, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, Ephesians 1 and Revelation 21—22.
This is where my proposal about a ‘five-act’ hermeneutic comes in. … The Bible itself offers a model for its own reading, which involves knowing where we are within the overall drama and what is appropriate within each act. The acts are: creation, ‘the fall’, Israel, Jesus, and the church; they constitute the differentiated stages in the divine drama which scripture itself offers.
He goes onto frame the drama of the scriptures within a Temple Metaphor which runs deeply and centrally to the whole story.
In our previous blog in the series we finished by introducing the image of a temple as found in Genesis 1-2. It’s a garden temple, where the beauty and intimacy of God interacts with the creation itself. It’s the place where heaven comes down to earth. The place where divinity touches humanity.
And then we have the fall.
The fall breaks and pollutes the human heart and results in Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden – they now live east of Eden, but still carry the identity and heart of Eden people.
The image bearing has been broken – the angled mirror, reflecting God’s image into the world through those made in that image, and then in return back to God through worship, is marred.
The heaven and earth project falls apart and God’s intention is to bring them back together – something of which Paul speaks in Ephesians 1, starts to unfold as the story continues.
The book of Genesis is spilt in two main sections. Genesis 1-11 – is pre Abraham; it is the OT of the OT if you like. Genesis 12 and through to the end of Malachi – is the start of the rescue plan. One section is a reflection of the other showing how God works to put things back together. As we will see the Babel of Genesis 11 reappears as the Babylon of the exiled people.
One is put together as being a picture of the other. We are place in a wonderful garden – a temple where heaven and earth meet but then things get messed up. Of course, this is not only the story of then – but of now. Of how life has been fractured and heaven and earth divided.
When these stories were written we may not be sure, but they were pulled together and edited during the time of the exile to Babylon. Their compilation brings cohesion to a people struggling to keep hold of their identity. Their story as an exiled people speaks of this original story – it’s the story of Israel in the promised land - and where do they end up – in Babel which is Babylon. Which means confused!
We all end up at Babel – confused. We all find ourselves in Babylon – exiled. We’ve lost our way from the Promised Land. We’re all living East of Eden.
Like Adam and Eve, we’re all part of the fall.
The garden temple is broken because the very thing needed to keep it working is obedience – and disobedience won. The temple image is broken – but not lost. God is still in the business of bringing heaven to earth.
So, God announces his rescue plan in Abraham – he calls childless nomads. He calls a couple who have nothing to become the conduit of blessing to the whole story of creation. It’s out of this – and those promises that everything else flows.
Next time we will build on this temple metaphor and see how it flows through the scriptures to present the ultimate intention of God which is not so much getting us to heaven as it is in getting heaven to earth – and getting it into us.
If you ever wondered about the importance of working with young people, the latest report from the Prince's Trust will leave you with little doubt. The 2019 Youth Index report serves to underline what we know to be true - our young people, or at least many of them, are struggling with issues like self-doubt, value and worth at unprecedentedly low levels and social media - although not entirely to be blame, is a large part of the problem. We are breeding a generation of anxious young adults.
The report makes for sober reading. Suicide is on the increase as young people struggle to find meaning; up from 3 young people in 100,000 in 2010 to 5 young people in 100,000 today. Furthermore, young people and issues relating to mental wellbeing at unprecedented levels as is shown in the report www.princes-trust.org.uk/ .
Now let’s be honest, life is complex for young people - much more so than the era I grew up in. Societal fragmentation has in many respects, eroded the foundations of security required for maturing into adulthood. Boundaries that are easily broken or non-existent hinder development by eliminating the security they bring in the framework of emotional, spiritual and physical development. This combined with the comparison culture of Instagram, Facebook and the like serve further to compound emotional wellbeing at a time when young people are struggling with their own identity.
Any level of engagement with young people reveals one thing - our investment in them needs to increase in this new world not decrease. The complexity of identity in an emotionally fragile society calls for us all to step up and not step back in our commitment to the young. This makes sense at every level, not least of which is the stability we can bring to the young person themselves.
As Nick Stace, UK chief executive of The Prince's Trust said, 'Young people are critical to the future success of this country, but they'll only realise their full potential if they believe in themselves and define success in their own terms. It is therefore a moral and economic imperative that employers, government, charities and wider communities put the needs of young people centre stage.'
A young person entering adulthood with a more rounded view of love, acceptance, value, resilience, and an appreciation of what creates personal confidence can only serve to create communities in which they will flourish. With community centres in decline, uniformed organisations losing kudos and youth groups underfunded we might well stop and ask some brave questions, like, What type of future do we want to create? Our young people need and deserve our support and how they will receive this needs to be one of our top priorities. We need a nation of adults who will take action and support that delivers a message that we love you and believe in you and are prepared to put our time, money and energy where it’s really needed. This is not a responsibility we can easily abdicate - we must all be engaged in seeking solutions to an epidemic of anxiety amongst the young - and Faith communities such as my own need to pick up the challenge and seek resolve in being part of the answer.