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After the action, a time for reflection? 

 

Most churches now define themselves as much by the social projects they run as by the manner in which they worship on a Sunday morning. However, our thinking hasn't kept pace with our activity on the ground, and we are struggling to understand the significance of what we do, argues Trevor Neill.

First in a series of three reflections. 


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Among the many delights brought to us by the internet is its capacity to enhance our memories of the past, to sharpen the detail of the reminiscences we might have of prior events. Sometimes, to unwind at the end of the day, my wife and I will head on to i-Player and watch Top of the Pops from the ‘80s or ‘90s, enjoying old songs and the recollections they evoke. As the saying goes, ‘Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.’

I took the same sort of trip down memory lane a few days ago when I watched some clips of another musical event from the past, the time in 1997 when we joined a large crowd at Wembley Stadium to declare that Jesus was ‘Champion of the World,’ a song by Noel Richards which had been written specially for the occasion.

A group of us had travelled by coach from our church in Exeter and we were all very excited about what had happened. We went home and sang again about Jesus being Champion of the World. There were other songs with a similar vibe, ‘walking the land with hearts on fire’ and so forth.

Even though that event took place only 20 years ago it seems, to me, to reflect a completely different kind of mindset with regard to mission and the local church. The ‘90s had been designated a decade of evangelism and our church was one of many planted in that period. And, I can assure you, it was most definitely a church. Phrases like ‘living missionally’ and ‘being incarnational’ were yet to be added to the evangelical lexicon. Evangelism was something which we understood to be primarily about proclamation.

And if, back then, someone had asked us what a foodbank was, or a CAP Centre, we would probably have shrugged our shoulders in a nonplussed manner.

How times change. We now find ourselves in a context where, in my experience, most churches now define themselves, or get a sense of who they are, as much by the social projects they run as by the manner in which they worship on a Sunday morning. Offering some kind of social justice ministry has become de rigeur for most Baptist congregations, a trend driven by a reawakening of Evangelicals’ social conscience and also by dramatic political changes such as austerity and localism which have created new needs and opportunities in almost every community.

However, I often wonder if our thinking and belief has kept pace with our activity on the ground.

Psychologists use the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ to describe the stress we experience when we try to hold in tension contradictory beliefs and behaviour in our lives. For example, we loathe ourselves because we continue to smoke in spite of our knowledge of the harm we’re doing to our bodies. Or we continue to drive a gas-guzzling car even though to do so is at odds with a genuine concern we feel for the environment.

Could it be that the same kind of dissonance is now bubbling under the surface of many of our churches? We’re busier than ever, spending much of our time doing work which demonstrates the values of the kingdom, providing food to the hungry or a shelter to the homeless.

However, we struggle to understand the significance of our activity when our beliefs consist mainly of a gospel which is about individuals pledging their belief in Jesus in order to go to heaven when they die. If we think of sin in terms of the faults and bad habits which plague individual lives over and above the structural injustices we collude with, and if we conceive of salvation as what happens beyond this life rather than a present liberation from the many ways sin brings brokenness and distortion into the experience of life, then we will struggle to realise fully the value of many new ministries?

This reorientation of our activities towards the social and local has probably been the biggest change in our churches over the last ten years. Could it be that this season of projects now needs to give way to a time of reflection on our practice, to allow our thinking to catch up with our doing?

The response of some leaders is to call for a greater ‘confidence in the Gospel,’ a plea which inevitably raises the question of what we understand the scope of the Gospel to be. Many new organisations have grown in recent years offering us help in the running of new initiatives. Who will provide the support we need for this increasingly urgent task of expressing what we believe God to be doing in this season, and how it can be understood as good news? 

 

Image | Pixabay



The Revd Trevor Neill is minister of Yardley Wood Baptist Church, Birmingham. This is the first in a series of three reflections about our practice, and the theology behind it.  

 

 

  • After the action, a time for reflection? Churches are increasingly defined by their social action. It's time our thinking caught up, argues a Baptist minister

  • Individualism - making the connection How an emphasis on individual reform at the heart of evangelical convictions mirrors modern life - and blinds us to the injustice hardwired into our structures 

  • Good news for the poor A reflection on how we share the gospel, and how it is heard. Can we do more justice to the big picture, Kingdom vision first proclaimed by Jesus - and what impact might this have? 


 
Baptist Times, 19/02/2018
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