WHAT GOD HAS SPOKEN THROUGH THE PEOPLE
What the Diocese of Rochester’s emerging strategy might uncover
The day after the knife-edge US Presidential election of 2000, when a few dimpled chads in Florida hung between George W Bush, Al Gore and the Oval Office, the departing President Bill Clinton wryly remarked:
The people have spoken, but it’s going to take a little while to determine exactly what they said.
Those working around Claire Boxall on the conversations over the Rochester diocesan strategy right now probably feel the same. Yet even at this early stage of discernment in summer 2017, some common themes - among others - are emerging around children and young people, discipleship, evangelism and prayer.
Each of these themes might have been predicted before the conversation started; it would be worrying if they had taken us entirely by surprise, for that would suggest we hadn’t been listening to God much at all. But they call for new thinking and the re-direction of resources to turn ideas into practice. The world-weary author of Ecclesiastes was right when they said ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, but the landscape changes appearance in each generation and few more so than ours, in what Canadian author Douglas Coupland has called an ‘accelerated culture’.
As every decade passes, our ministry among children and young people has become thinner. There are places where it is bearing fruit, but the overall scene is patchy. Children and young people are entirely absent from some congregations now and it is difficult to reassemble what has dispersed. In any case, it begs the honest question, what exactly are we expecting from a younger generation? It is probably a mistake for us to assume that millennials simply need to cross the doors of their parish church on a Sunday morning for them to turn to Christ. When the issue is expressed this way, it places the onus on young people; that if they want to find God, they must do so in the ways we customarily worship together. But the ways we worship together are largely reflective of previous generations and are not as intelligible or as attractive as we imagine for young people.
There is a radical disjuncture opening between millennials and generations above them. Theirs is a generation where many are likely to be materially poorer than their parents and grandparents because of student debts, the hollowing out of middle income jobs and an impenetrable housing market. One of the gifts the Church can offer young people is the shared exploration of the grace of God in Christ. But it should not merely be done on my generation’s terms. When this point is made, some interpret it as code for trivialising - or dumbing down – the way we worship and talk about God. This is not the goal, and it can appear patronising to young people to suggest it is. Millennials value authenticity; and it is a deep, credible and challenging encounter with God we are called to, however we choose to express it in practice.
Our shared conversation has also shown the value of prayer and discipleship in the life of the diocese. The data I get on my own website shows the most common keywords typed into the search engine that lead people to the site are variants on just two questions: how do I pray? and how do I live as a Christian today? Like Nicodemus, many people are asking questions about the Christian faith undercover. The Pharisee used the cloak of night-time; today’s wired generation uses the internet. If someone asked us how to pray, would we know how to guide them? Written liturgy is a part of this answer - and has been since the scriptures were transcribed - but there is also a spontaneous, personal relationship with God to be had in the middle of daily life. We need to be ready to share this with others. Behind this lies a lurking anxiety that our prayer lives are, if anything, thinning out.
It is challenging to sustain a life of prayer today. The immediate and the urgent consume us, like the next hundred yards of a motorway which our glazed eyes fix on, unable to take in the sweeping countryside around us. In a way, those of us who exercise ministry in the local church should not be too hard on ourselves because we intercede by what we do. Our work is often the answer to other people’s prayers. We might wish they didn’t pray so much, hearing that, but it means the stuff we do is often a form of prayer itself.
As our digital culture creeps over us like ivy, the chances are that our movements in prayer are becoming more constrained. The tech expert Nicholas Carr suggests we are becoming shallower in the way our minds work; that the brain’s plasticity is being re-moulded. This not conducive to intercession. The opening words of Psalm 40: ‘I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined and heard my cry’ is morphing into ‘I waited distractedly for the Lord; he inclined but I had left’. I know that feeling all too well. How we re-wire our minds for waiting on God is a key task of our generation.
Allied to this is the way we understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ in the twenty-first century. Our culture is evolving in complex and unpredictable ways. It is also becoming less Christian in its self-expression. In Romans 12 the Apostle Paul calls us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. How do we interpret being conformed and being transformed? We need some clarity over this – even if we may not agree on the whole picture – because it is fundamental to following Christ.
And then there is the issue of evangelism; how we share the good news in conversation with others. No-one would claim this is easy; right from the ascension of Jesus, it has been fraught with challenge, but it is imperative in a society where people are not opening the church door to find meaning in life. Changing law and custom have contributed to the difficulty many feel. Which places are legitimate to be evangelistic in? When does my space, within which I have freedom of speech, become someone else’s space, where I might not? The emergence of safe spaces among today’s students feels strange to many, and may fizzle out, but it might equally gain traction, meaning people increasingly cannot discuss topics which cause upset to those around them. Jesus confronts us in our safe spaces; how could we ever grow in faith and maturity if we weren’t prepared to inhabit the unsafe space of challenge?
All these are pertinent questions, which the emerging strategy may address. In Isaiah 43, God says to his people: ‘I am about to do a new thing’. I suspect we have no real idea just how endlessly creative God is. ‘I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert’, he says. If we were to put on a pair of glasses which allowed us to see our surrounding culture purely in terms of its relationship with God, I suspect all the fertile aspects of life today may look more like an encroaching desert, with sources of water becoming increasingly far apart. But God says ‘do not consider the things of old’. There is a risk that we inhabit a suffocating mantra of decline, where we are resigned to a narrative of failure. A story we tell ourselves even as the risen, conquering Christ walks alongside us on the road.
‘I give water in the wilderness…to give drink to my chosen people…so that they might declare my praise’, says the Lord. May I finish with the shallowest pop cultural reference of all: rather like a Pokémon Go app, there is life around us if we develop the eyes of faith to see. There is, as there always has been, a supply of water gushing around us today that will never run out.
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