Several years ago there was a phase going around Evangelical circles called ‘The emerging church’. The thing that stood out to me about its adherents was (and this is a massive generalisation) they weren’t that big on going to Church on a Sunday and being a part of the audience.
There are several books and many good reasons why Church as a Sunday gathering alone is problematic. The prominence of the internet has only highlighted this. When asked the average lay person will say they go to church for..
b) Teaching (or ‘Feeding’)
Yet today no shortage exists of books, podcasts, feeds and album releases to fuel each of these independently. If you don’t like what you hear on a Sunday you can today simply go somewhere else, start your own thing or opt out of Sunday gatherings altogether. The boundaries between denominations likewise are increasingly porous, a person when they move town might of been attending an Anglican church will go to a Baptist church because thats what works in their new context. Their isn’t anything ultimately bad about this itself (I believe in a sense although this does present problems) but the distinguishing marks of these denominations are lessened as a result giving way to the lowest common denominator. Accountability, discipleship and the sacraments inevitably suffer as a result. We catch ourselves trending towards a theology that affirms our life choices rather than affirming a changed life. We are no longer ‘Anglicans’ or ‘Baptists’ but pragmatists who take what we need when its needed and like magpies construct our own theological nests adorned with the various baubles we find appealing. Our faith has become increasingly personalised, commodified and even commercialised.
We’re all ’emerging’ now
Most people I talk to generally state that the emerging church has failed. It was a phase, a fad and we are all past it now. Yet I believe that the ’emerging church’ was just the tip of the iceberg of a bigger change at work in the Protestant, and dare I say global Christian world. The Church is a body, a family and it always has been but it is no longer a authority. Authority instead is found in those who we find appealing, whether they are a powerful preacher, a teacher, a gifted worship leader or some other character. For many Christians they are more likely to trust and respect their favourite Christian celebrity than their local minister. The honest truth however is that even those voices don’t carry authority, they just create a space for us to form our own opinions and beliefs. In essence we are our own authority – a thoroughly post-modern and emerging tenant.
All of the above comments however come from the perspective of treating our faith as a purely intellectual, emotional or spiritual pursuit. It is those things but the question is – is it more? Is it shared? Is it public? Because our faith today seems private, tailor-made and individualistic.
The Lord’s Prayer goes as follows..
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
It uses the word ‘our’ instead of ‘my’, ‘us’ instead of ‘me’, ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ and in doing so betrays itself as a public declaration. Even if said alone its very structure reminds us that we are part of a body. The communion likewise is given and received, it is offered and accepted in the context of the body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’. The church is a body and that is more than merely being present in the same place and at the same time. Too often today we stand alone in crowded halls and rooms of people genuinely unaware of how our brothers and sisters around us are doing. We make gestures but do not move beyond the point of our own inconvenience to be there for one another.
Small groups are one way we try and address this, we meet in the week and read scripture together and pray. Yet these rarely make ground for us to really dig into the meat of the core issues affecting our growth as believers. Despite what some might say, I don’t think this is discipleship. Its also often rather generic and addresses the lowest common denominator of peoples faith due to time constraints and group dynamics. Yet this is something that will keep people coming back as it isn’t attainable online or through media consumption. It is interpersonal, it requires effort and at least is a step in the right direction.
If the Church is to grow I am of the conviction that it needs to recover its communal identity. We need to move beyond consumption to participation. Getting together with other believers a couple of hours a week isn’t enough to sustain a layperson who spends the rest of it being assaulted by the world with its own values, desires and intentions. Our faith needs its distinctives and particulars which aren’t marketable and distributable online. I’ve been challenged personally in my reading of the Book of Common Prayer’s morning and evening prayers and painfully aware of the fact that I’ve never encountered a Anglican church that offers these. I can pray the words alone, but its a pale imitation of what I imagine the real thing to be. These are treated as optional extras and I’m beginning to wonder if the rhythms these prayers offer might be more important than that.
Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.
These rhythms mentioned aren’t just liturgical, although I think they can be useful in binding us together, but also those of discipleship. Our society is one that praises the individual, or at least the notion of one in principle. Discipleship or mentoring is something rarely sought out but it is precisely what Jesus called us to as his followers. If we aren’t doing this are we really being obedient to Christ? Are we really calling others and encouraging one another to obey the commands of Christ?
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
I don’t think discipleship is just exhortation or teaching, it is interpersonal, frequent, prayerful, challenging and at times an intimate interaction. It is apprenticeship and mentoring. If we aren’t willing to do these things for one another what are we really willing to give up for Christ? Preaching sermons and singing songs together on a Sunday aren’t enough – you can get that anywhere these days.
As Christians we have no external differences that set us out from the masses. We blend into the crowds and slip past unnoticed, our differences are in our actions, our inheritence, our creeds, baptism and confessions. They are particular, nuanced and consistent. Leaving one another to ‘do it ourselves’ when it comes to becoming followers of Christ is to confess to the coming of a ‘private’ Kingdom of God and that is to say arguably no Kingdom at all. We need to discover the public gospel if we are to more fully become public Christians.