Reflections on Encountering Church, the recent Christian Research UK findings, and one change I would like to make to the United Reformed Church.

29 09 2006

According to the recent church census carried out by Dr Peter Brierley the United Reformed Church is losing church members at a higher rate than any other denomination in the United Kingdom. The Overall rate of decline is at 15% whilst the Catholic Church declines at 14% and evangelical churches decline at just 9%. The good news is that this is an improvement on the last figures which revealed that 65% of churches are in decline and only 21% of churches were growing now only 50% of churches are in decline and around 36% of churches are growing. However, I take the Rev Dr David Peel’s point that using such reasoning in 1880 regarding the rise of horse drawn transport would have suggested that by 1920 London would have been buried in under a foot of horse manure![1]

It is nevertheless a serious issue but it is not the be-all-and-end-all we may still remain confident in God who has sustained his church for the past two thousand years. It also cannot be denied that Christianity worldwide is growing phenomenally. However, these facts should give us cause for some serious reflection on our life and witness:

I am concerned that we have in the words of Richard Church, ‘no theology of conversion’. This is not a plea for an evangelical interpretation of conversion. It is an observation that we find it difficult to articulate the change that occurs in a person when they accept the Father’s forgiveness, commit to following to Jesus Christ, and surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel is not primarily about life after death it is about beginning life again today. Indeed, I believe Christian Aid got it right (in more ways than one) when they said ‘we believe in life before death’.

The URC is good at working for social action and justice but it is weak at the task of evangelism, sharing the gospel of God’s love and salvation with those yet to believe. In Christendom culture the church could assume basic knowledge of the Bible and Christian beliefs, in our post-Christendom world we can assume no such basic understanding. I do not believe that we should ignore social initiatives or direct money away from these projects into evangelistic events rather we should invest in church ventures that combine these aspects of Christian faith.

The task of evangelism must no longer be seen as the responsibility of a few within the church the ‘ecclesiola in ecclesia’ (church within a church). Evangelism must be seen as the responsibility of the whole community to make evident the reason for the hope that they have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). This is not simply an intellectual discipline but a practical, emotional, and communal practice.

It is clear that Christian faith concerns the whole person not the autonomous individual but a person with relationships, friends and family. We must be aware that to confess faith in Jesus Christ can sometimes mean a person disassociating from existing communities and sub-cultures or being shunned by their existing network of friends. It is imperative therefore that the Christian fellowship be prepared to take responsibility for such radical change in lifestyle.[2]

In our settled so-called ‘Christendom’ we had little need for apostolic, prophetic, or evangelistic offices in the church. This is reflected in our ministerial appointments; often ministers are people called to pastoral and teaching ministries (a model we find in the pastoral epistles) rather than apostolic, prophetic or evangelistic ministries (found in the earlier epistles such as Ephesians). We need to appoint more apostles, prophets, or evangelists to restore, mentor, and encourage these ministries within our local churches.

[1] Peel D, Encountering Church (London: United Reformed Church, 2006), p.8
[2] Kallenberg BJ, Live to Tell; Evangelism for a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002), p.32

(here’s something I wrote today- let me know what you think- its not polished it is very URC but I think the insights can be applied elsewhere)

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