What is the Spirit saying to the Church?

Sunguk Kim unsplash.com

In these days of mistrust and ‘fake news’, I’m trying to glean information from a wider range of sources. Previously I was guilty of lazily sticking to my favoured news silos, but recently I’ve been challenged to be less lethargic. Essentially this means engaging with other voices alongside the BBC.

One trend that has caught my attention is people that don’t profess Christian faith speaking favourably about Christianity. For example, Tom Holland’s view of the role of Christianity in Western Civilisation or until recently some of Jordan Peterson’s statements. I say ‘until recently’ because youtube is full of videos indicating that Jordan Peterson may now be a follower of Christ. Incidentally, I recently heard an interview where Jordan Peterson commented that if pastors are making the bible boring, we are doing it wrong!* Guilty as charged, but let’s save that for another day.

In other interviews and podcasts, I’ve heard people who profess to be atheist or agnostic claim that the problems they perceive in society come from the ‘death of God’ or that religious faith might be better for society. Interestingly, one of my geography lecturers said something similar a quarter of a century ago; perhaps this is not a new phenomenon.

Most of these comments come from a philosophical perspective and from people that are conservative about particular cultural changes. These are not, necessarily, people converting to Christian faith. But they appear to lament a perceived void in society which is being filled with other passions and ideologies. What stands out, is that these commentators value faith, theism and sometimes historic Christian belief in contrast with the values and practices of contemporary society.

In the interview mentioned earlier, Peterson also stated that the church may be losing young people because we don’t offer them a challenge; “[the church] demands too little.” I find this particularly significant. The reason being, many voices within the church propose making Christianity more accessible rather than more challenging. For example consider the recent article on Premier about a Taylor Swift tribute at Southwark Cathedral.** It’s the comments rather than the article which suggest that Christians need to make it easier for younger people (and Taylor Swift fans) to enter a church building.

In many mainstream and established churches there appears to be a shift towards making Christian faith less demanding and more similar to the wider culture. Often this is framed as being in the interests of inclusion and justice. But sometimes it’s simply to remove general barriers to people coming in.

This leaves me wondering what the Spirit might be saying to the church today? Should we be making it easier to participate in Christian community by contrasting less with wider society? Or should we be holding on more strongly to our distinctives? And might our answer vary depending on whether we are speaking of cultural practices, ethics and morality or aesthetics? Is it possible that atheists and agnostic cultural critics have more to say to the church than major voices within the church?

And finally, if Jordan Peterson is right that young people seek challenge, might the established churches’ increasing acquiescence to popular culture and beliefs lead to the unintended result of speeding our demise?

*The Jordan B Peterson Podcast, The Spiritual Void and the West with Rav Arora.


This house remains a ruin

James Tissot Collection, freebibleimages.com

Recently, we’ve been studying Haggai who reveals God’s frustration that his people in, Post-Exile, Jerusalem have been building homes for themselves rather than rebuilding the Temple. The Jerusalem Temple was, amongst other things, a symbol of the presence of God among his people. It was a central representation of and conduit for the relationship between God and his people. I took the core message to connect strongly with Jesus’ command to prioritise God’s Kingdom.

In the New Testament the Temple building appears to be replaced by people. For Christians, Jesus replaces the Temple, the Christian community (Jesus body) replaces the Temple, and individual Christians also replace the Temple as dwelling places for God’s Spirit. Today the message of Haggai insists that our focus should be on Jesus and the growing people of God.

This makes me wonder about our churches as both physical and institutional structures? Do we see our buildings and governance structures as the symbol and context for God’s presence among us? Is it possible that we have mistake these as the Temple?

Many churches, at heart, present as members clubs rather than missionary movements. Often staff and volunteer activities are centred on keeping the organisation running rather than increasing the spiritual depth and impact of the people of God? Is it possible that God remains frustrated that we are still building our own ‘homes’ because our activities are about the day to day running and preservation of the organisation or the assets?

What if the Spirit is saying stop! Stop building your own homes. Stop trying to save your structures and buildings. Stop trying to save the Kirk. Because while we agonise over how to make structural reforms, another generation of Scotland’s people are drifting further from any Christian community. What if, by continuing to focus on the structures and infrastructure we are doing more harm than good? What if the Kingdom of God would most benefit from our demise as a denomination?

I actually wonder if that is the starting place for all planning.

Should every Church of Scotland start by asking in what way are we benefitting the growth of God’s Kingdom? Or to phrase if differently, what difference would it make to the Kingdom if we were not here? And what about our earlier question, how is God’s Temple being priorised?

How are God’s people growing in number, faith and impact? Is anyone becoming a Christian through our church life? Is God adding to our number. How are people transformed by our worship services and care for our community? How is Jesus’ mission furthered by our church building and administrative structures? What different does it make that we are in our parish?

It might be well argued that churches should be primarily about the worship of God and the teaching and care of the congregation. And this need not be a self-centred approach. Such congregations might be heavily missional through the personal activities of the individual congregation members. But in that context it’s hard to justify all the trappings of a parish church. How do we justify the expense of a building which is used infrequently? How do we justify the expense of a Parish Minister and local church organisational structures, if our church is essentially a small gathering for bible study, prayer and worship. Why not become a self-sustaining house church perhaps renting a space for Sunday gatherings?

This is a circuitous way of saying, the Temple and therefore the Kingdom of God can be built without the current parish church exo-skeleton. Indeed, sometimes maintaining the parish church with its rotas, costs, committees and admin may actually detract from the building of the Temple.

Should we close all our buildings and lose our employees and office holders? No, but we must justify these through their participation in the growth and extension of the Kingdom. Instead of equating our buildings and administrative structures with the Temple, we need to assess them as instruments of mission and Kingdom growth. How do our church buildings, governance and administrative structures support the activity of the Spirit, adding to our number and transforming us into the likeness of Jesus? If they don’t, do we really need them?

Lastly, I believe that the Kingdom of God is growing among us, albeit often unseen and unheard. But perhaps we should ask does God want the Kirk to decline? Does God seek our slow demise because he has something else in mind? What does keeping in step with the Spirit mean for the Kirk today? But that’s a question for another day.