“The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.” (Haggai 2.9) In an earlier post (Number Crunching: St Chrysostom’s, a growing church) we mentioned that through the coming months we’d have some blog posts with thoughts on the shape of the church to come. Here we reproduce part of a sermon preached at St Chrysostom’s by the Ven. Dr Mark Dalby, in 1998. They serve as a gentle and thoughtful introduction to this topic:
I could quote figures for baptisms, confirmations, Easter communions, Christmas communions, usual Sunday attendance and so on. But I don’t want to weary you with figures. Just take my word for it: all the figures show the same pattern of incredible decline over the last forty years. And this is true not just of the Church of England but of all the mainstream churches.
An increasing number of people are growing up today without knowledge of Christian faith, or experience of Christian worship. Society as a whole is vastly more secular. While there are certainly some ways in which society today is healthier than it used to be, there are many other ways in which it’s desperately sick.
‘Go and repair my ruined church,’ St Francis is told. Many Christians are seeking to do this very vigorously. Alpha courses are springing up everywhere. There are new types of churches meeting in houses, schools, etc. And people with a gap in their lives, people who feel that there must be more to life than endless trips to the Trafford Centre, people are responding.
But some of this leaves me uneasy. Underlying much of the liveliest of today’s evangelism, there’s a very fundamentalist understanding of Christianity. It says a lot about redemption, but very little about creation. It says much about the Holy Spirit in the church but very little about the Holy Spirit in the world. Morally it’s very black and white, far more so than the general tone of scripture. Sometimes it’s very strident. And sometimes its methods seem almost manipulative.
As God calls us to repair and renew the life of his church today, I don’t believe that we’re called to try and recreate some particular understanding of the faith or some particular pattern of church life that we imagine existed in the past. The best church restorations that I’ve seen have been schemes that have taken hold of an old building, respected its integrity and retained all that was best in it. But at the same time they’ve adapted it to new circumstances and new needs. And by that adaptation they’ve given it a new life and new purpose.
And as it is with church buildings, so it is with church life as a whole. In one sense your church, St Chrysostom’s, will never be in the foreseeable future what it was first built to be yet I believe that it can have a very good future.
I believe that God is calling all of us – including you – to seek growth, and to do this primarily by engaging with people where they are, and by an outward-lookingness that takes seriously the communities in which we’re set. I believe that he’s calling us to be open and inclusive, firm and solid at the centre but confident enough to recognise that we’re all at different points in our Christian pilgrimage, and confident enough not to be worried if the edges are fuzzy.
In almost every church restoration scheme there are unexpected problems, unexpected costs. Things rarely go as smoothly as hoped. There always will be problems and setbacks in the wider renewal of the church. We need to keep our head. We need to keep our nerve. And above all we need to be sustained by Haggai’s vision, ‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts’.