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Mind the Gap 

The gap between non-churched children and the church seems to be getting wider - but are we really noticing? And how can we go about bridging it? By Martin Sweet

Mind the Gap700


Psalm 8:4 ‘what is man that you are mindful of him?’

Mind the gap

The very first "mind the gap" announcements arrived at Paddington station 50 years ago. It became an automated announcement on the London underground because it had become impractical for drivers and station attendants to warn passengers of an unsafe gap when a train stops at a curved platform. "Mind the gap" was also chosen because it was short enough to be painted along the edges of curved platforms.

Today, the expression “Please mind the gap between the train and the platform" is an announcement inside the train as it approaches the next station. It is a short, concise warning. It is completely self-defining. It needs no detailed explanation.
Such gaps are dangerous, easily forgotten and, in a crowd, un-noticed. That is until someone has what they call a “passenger-train interface” incidents. And there were 298 “passenger-train interface moments” alone in 2014!

Non-churched children - what is the danger?

In a conversation with a team member with Spinnaker of over 20 years, we were reflecting on the fact that the gap between non-churched children and the church seems to be getting wider. And wider. Few would disagree that we need to ‘mind this gap’ because this generational ‘crowd’ of children are those who can’t see the gap[J5] .
So who should make the announcement? Perhaps we could paint it across the threshold of our churches, just in case a few children try to come in! We should certainly not have an automated voice as some would try and suggest we have no right to make such an announcement at all.
The real question is to ask what has happened in society since 1968. Far too many changes in education to note here. But inexorably, like when an approaching Underground train blows the stale air of London into my face, I fear we, the church, might not notice the danger of the growing gap.
The gap represents a level of ignorance both in this generation and in us, the church. In other words, is the train too far from the platform or the platform too far from the train? The question should not be who moved?, but what is the danger?  
Firstly, it is imperative that the church defines itself ahead of the crowd. Definitions are going to be critical. For example, taboo words such as ‘fundamentalist’ are acceptable, so long as people know what we are fundamental about.
Secondly, we need to explore and develop ways that we can connect with his generation.
But thirdly, rather than assess what will happen to the church if this gaps grows, what will happen to the society that this generation is growing into? In other words, instead of worrying about the church’s drop in numbers (or income!) ought we to worry about what happens when a society loses its spiritual and moral roots?
Probably overstretching the analogy, but is the question ‘who moved to create the gap’ important? One thing is absolutely certain. Society is unlikely to move closer. So in assuming that the gap was created when they first built the Underground Station at Paddington in 1863, the gap we face between the church and society has been around a long time. Except is it getting wider?



The worst civilian incident during WWII happened in an Underground station. In March 1943, at tea time, with little warning of an air-raid, hundreds of people were rushing to get to safety in Bethnal Green Underground station. One woman, clutching her young child, lost her footing and fell. Neither she nor anyone else knew that it was false alarm and that what they heard were soldiers testing some new British anti-aircraft rockets – not enemy bombs.  But as she tripped, she pulled an elderly man down with her. Others running into the stair well fell over them and bodies quickly piled up at base of the steps. Those at the top, completely unaware of what had happened, continued to try and force their way down. In the end 173 people, including 62 children, were crushed.
One doctor who was working in a nearby hospital wrote “I suppose the government didn't want to look as if things were out of hand. The newspapers said nothing.”
It seems hard to believe that such a tragedy was not reported. And it makes me think about how relatively ignorant we may be of the gap between the church and our society. Ignorant, not of numbers attending church – but of what is happening to a society where the church is not close enough – we are not ‘alongside’. We are being pushed away. Marginalised.
The look on the face of clergy and their congregation often suggests ‘we can’t do any more!’ Surely the church needs to get into a mode of thinking that comes out with an attitude that asks “what more can we do?”
If in the Underground analogy you let me identify the church as the platform and this generation as the train, then perhaps the first thing we need to do is to understand that the gap will only be bridged with significant and appropriate action on our part. We cannot expect this generation to ‘arrive’ and connect on their own.


We cannot expect this generation to ‘arrive’ and connect on their own.


Understanding the gap

Defining what is significant and appropriate would need a longer article than this – but it is a process that is definitely needed. Before we even contemplate connecting with this generation, we need to understand the very nature and context of the gap that exists. I obviously understand the significance of the yellow line on the Underground in London. Stand the other side of it and you could get hurt. But in identifying how we connect with this generation, should we perhaps live more dangerously? Bridging the gap can only be achieved as we reach out to this generation in whatever way is possible.
The one thing that will traverse the gap is prayer. Prayer that seeks to be prophetic, a result of understanding that gap and being motivated to do something. No point in trying to catch the train that left a minute ago!  So we need to look for what, in terms of societal trends and issues, is coming down the track. We need to see that this generation will pass us by without any way to connect with them unless we are ‘mindful of the gap’.
I came across a quote in a book by J H Bavinck, an insightful theologian who, 50 years ago, as prophetically as anything currently being written by evangelical missiologists, wrote of this impending gap. He saw the cause for the ‘gap’ was due to the church being interested in its own function and form, rather than the task of mission:

‘The church loves to be occupied with itself and its own problems. They do not want to be shocked by the bewildering idea that there are still many ..people who have never heard the gospel.’

Clearly he felt there was a lack of what we might call “passenger-train interface moments”!
The reformation that was implemented by Asa in 2 Chronicles 15 was initiated with the king being met by the prophet Azariah’s:  “The Lord is with you when you are with him”(v2) and the reassurance we gain when reading v15. “They sought God eagerly, and he was found by them. So the Lord gave them rest on every side.”
What gives me great hope is the fact that God is telling us to ‘mind the gap’, because he cares for this generation more than we can imagine. In James 4:8, we gain encouragement from the text “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” Which is surely true of this generation.
So God is near to them. A statement, like the announcement introduced to Paddington all those years ago, which is completely self-defining. It needs no detailed explanation. It is obvious?

Picture: Mind the Gap / Wikimedia

Martin Sweet writes on behalf of the Baptist Education Group (BEG). The vision of the Baptist Education Group is to encourage every Baptist church to strategically engage in supporting its local school.

Martin is director of Spinnaker Trust, an organisation with over 25 years’ experience, based in SE London, regularly supporting over 100 primary schools in London and the Southeast with RE, assemblies and much more.

The Baptist Education Group would like to hear from people who are interested/involved in education and would like to be networked. Contact admin@spinnaker.org.uk



Baptist Times, 15/07/2016
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