The next transitions in the church (Part 1) by Cid Latty

A recent report to the General Synod of the Church of England stated that unless drastic changes took place within the church ‘a perfect storm’ would lead to a crisis through which the church would be unsustainable. This view was also shared at the Methodist Conference, previously, when the statement was made that ‘we are prepared to go out of existence.’ With changing demographics, ageing of the financially secure ‘baby boomers’ and cultural paradigm shifts for some the future of the Church in its present form looks less than certain. Will the Church survive the downturn?

There have been many warnings, but church decline is much like sand in an hour-glass; it falls slowly and can go unnoticed, leading to what Stuart Murray called the ‘complacency’ of some denominations to respond with urgency. However, amidst the stark reality of church closures, there are mustard seed signs of hope that may take many by surprise. Something is happening that often falls below the radar of church attendance statistics, as parts of the Church instinctively begin to move in a more missional way. (E.g. Fresh Expressions, Incarnate and Urban Expression)

Whilst helping many churches start cafechurches over the last few years, I have noted a conglomeration of signs that point to what could be the next transitions in the Church. I am going to highlight the most obvious ones and give a few practical steps to help implement them.

Give a good welcome

One children’s nursery rhyme says ‘sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. If only that were true, it was just a few words that made the prophet Elijah run for his life. Make no mistake, words are powerful. There are two words that most churches display on their notice boards as a way of inviting the community to come to experience the love of God for themselves. The words ‘All Welcome’ have been faithfully used as an invitation for decades. No church would like to think that they are anything less than a welcoming place. The reality, however, sometimes does not live up to the ideal. As John Drane says (After the McDonaldization of the Church) what people are sold and what they receive from the Church can be two different things.

What we need to understand is that a welcome is different to a greeting. A greeting is saying ‘Hello, how are you?’ but a welcome goes further than that and makes someone feel at home, inviting them to be friends with your friends and shows them ‘hospitality that includes them in our conversations around a meal table’. (‘Open Heart Open Home’ Karen Mains) It is sharing life together and this is a transition that is taking place within the Church. We are increasingly seeing the Church say, ‘when we meet, we eat’ and they understand that hospitality is a spiritual gift that must be intentionally exercised. At a recent baptism of somebody that had visited one of our cafechurches, the baptismal candidate said it was the ability of the cafechurch to lovingly welcome them that made them seek out the reason for this embrace.

Talk about real issues

Whenever religious people want to discount small contextual movements they call them ‘church lite’, saying ‘When are you going to talk about spiritual things?’ The fear is that in contextualizing the scriptures, eisegesis may occur. Of course there are risks but why should fear stop us? Once we had someone walk into one of our cafechurches after arguing with their spouse at home. It just so happened that that night we were talking about relationships. Our guest returned home telling us of the ‘miracle’ that had happened that that night which equipped them to heal their broken relationship. I am convinced, that if we unpack the values of Christ we have better foundations to share the Christ of the values. I see the next transition in the Church addressing the felt-need to talk about real issues. After recent riots in the UK that shocked many around the world, Sheldon Thomas – a former gang member who now directs a helpline for gang members to help them turn their lives around – stated that the underlying reason for the riots was that children are bringing up children and they need to be ‘shown how to be good parents’. Churches have a mandate and the people who can do that very thing. In a world that will not wait ‘self-contemplation and selfishness’ within the Church, is ‘dangerous’. (‘Turn-around churches’ George Barna) It is vital that the Church speaks now about the felt needs of people. Contexts within the Church where people can have conversations about life and discover ways to respond are being developed on an ever increasing scale.

The story of the demise of The Crystal Cathedral (whatever you think of the church) should be a stark reminder to all of us that unless the church intentionally is redefining itself, a slow demise is inevitable. The next transitions in the church must be more than cosmetics then but flow out of a rediscovery of essentials we forget.

In part two we’ll look at two more transitions and a few practical steps to implement them.

This article first appeared in the Baptist Times.

1 Comment »

  1. moondustwriter said

    It is possible that “the church” is moving toward extinction because this is the END!
    Do we keep the church limping along or do we empower believers to believe????

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