I wonder why you attend the church you do? There are all sorts of possible reasons.
Perhaps it’s the church which your family has always gone to, or the church closest to your home. Perhaps you were taken there by a friend and liked what you found. Perhaps you value its glorious choral and organ music, or love the energy of its worship band. Perhaps you are lifted to heaven by its liturgy, or feel comfortable with its laid-back informality. Perhaps you enjoy the intimacy of a small fellowship or you like being “one of the crowd” in a large gathering.
There might be other reasons, too. You appreciate the way that the Minister opens up the Bible in the sermons, or you are happy with the church’s undogmatic and enquiring approach to faith. You have children and are really grateful that the church arranges so many activities for them. Or – dare I say? – you first went because you wanted to get those children into the school next door, and liked it so much that you stayed; not the worthiest of reasons for choosing a church but it happens!
I suspect that many of us are not quite sure why we ended up in the church we now attend; indeed, we may well put it down to God’s providence. But let’s remember that many folk in the past, especially in rural areas, didn’t have so much choice. Oh, there may have been plenty of churches and chapels around (although presumably limited to the traditional Anglican, Catholic and Nonconformist denominations), but few people had cars. To get to church meant walking, cycling or catching an infrequent Sunday bus.
Let me take you, for a moment, away from churches and into the realm of commerce; more specifically, into the way we do our shopping. We know that stores invest a lot of time and money into providing an attractive retail environment, hoping to lure in the customers. Companies work hard to build up brand loyalty, carefully positioning their products in the crowded market-place. Supermarkets offer a “one-stop” shopping experience with a bewildering range of items. And looming up behind them all is the rise of on-line shopping, with its unlimited choice and unrivalled convenience.
We may welcome this brave new world where the consumer is king; but it has unwelcome consequences. For the old-fashioned drapers’ or butchers’ where the assistants knew all their customers by name, the convenient corner shop with its limited offering of daily necessities, the village store which once sold everything from milk to mousetraps, all struggle to survive. Indeed, many have closed. For a lot of people that doesn’t really matter: they can drop in at Tesco’s on the way home from work, or book a delivery to their front door. But it can leave elderly (or simply carless) people with real difficulties, it can tear the heart out of communities, it can have repercussions on the local economy.
Do you see a parallel here with the churches? I do. For if every Christian makes a consumer choice and flocks to the church they ‘like’, what will be the effect on the churches they pass to get there? If all Christian parents decide to attend the church with the flourishing youth programme, how will that leave other churches who desperately want to reach out to families? If most Christian wage-earners put their offerings into churches which already seem to be well-off, where will the money come from to sustain other congregations? These are a few of the questions we should be asking.
You see, I am very worried, and for two reasons. One is that this consumer mentality, of choosing something principally because it gratifies our desires, just doesn’t seem to fit well with our Christian faith which talks about “dying to self” and “taking up Christ’s cross daily”. Indeed, I get worried when Christians say that they’ve been “led” to join big, thriving churches: wouldn’t God be more likely to send them to small ones in which they could make a real difference? Equally, if they say that they go to their current church because they find the worship so uplifting, mustn’t one ask if the primary aim of worship isn’t to give us a good time with God but offer him the honour which he deserves. Any blessing we may receive is, in a sense, coincidental.
And there is an even more significant reason to be concerned. For many churches and chapels, especially in villages or less-salubrious urban areas, are having a real fight to keep going. Some of those congregations may be inward-looking and set in their ways; but others have a real desire to reach out with the Gospel. What they desperately need is energetic and committed folk who will help them in their task – but those folk often choose to go elsewhere. The long-term effect will be that many churches will close, leaving communities without any Christian witness.
Do we really want that to happen? I don’t. But to avoid it Christians must be prepared to leave their vibrant churches and get stuck into the tiring and possibly dispiriting work of being disciples in a less hospitable environment. They will have to forego the buzz of being part of a lively fellowship and engage with a much smaller community. They may need to abandon professional standards of music and put up with something that sets their teeth on edge.
Yet, as they do these things, they will have the satisfaction being involved in real, cutting-edge mission. They will play a crucial role in a congregation that is trying to live authentically for Jesus in an uninspiring place. Above all, they will know that they are serving Christ in the place to which he has called them.
Andrew Kleissner has been the Minister of Christ Church (United Reformed & Baptist), Tacket Street, Ipswich since 2005. Prior to that he was a missionary in West Africa and then the Minister of two churches in London. He served for some years as the Baptist representative on “Churches Together in England’s” Theology Group and has recently become the Eastern Baptist Association’s Ecumenical Officer for Suffolk. Andrew is married to Moira, a retired teacher who – among other things! – volunteers for Christian Aid, Dance East and “Emmaus”.
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(The views expressed here are those of the author, not of Heart 4 Ipswich, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate. We welcome your thoughts upon the ideas expressed here, posted as comments below)