Saving the nation or saving ourselves?
One year ends, another one begins. Although I am not a great enthusiast for New Year resolutions, the change of year does always provide humanity with a great opportunity to track itself, take stock, gauge progress, and potentially even do a little celebration along the way.
Usually, at this time of year, many people's resolutions are focused around eating better, eating less, exercising more, and dieting for real this time. Christians may well throw in one or two lifestyle changes of a spiritual nature too… perhaps more discipline in Bible reading and prayer, making more time for some form of ministry or service in their local church.
But the very nature of resolutions are that they tend to be very individual, and it's possible to be too self-focused in our interests. Even Christians get obsessed with their ministry, their devotional life, their home group, their spiritual gift. And the Church of Jesus Christ is something much bigger.
At this time of year, many clergy and pastors are red-eyed and exhausted in the wake of multiple Christmas services and haven't got any plans beyond their 2014 Lent Course. By contrast, a local pastor friend I know spent the New Year period in prayer and fasting to seek God's plans for 2014 – not for him so much as for the whole church and community. Would that there were more like him!
I must say, I approached 2014 with a deep concern for where the Church in the West is headed. I was encouraged therefore by the Archbishop of York's timely challenge recently to the Church in Britain to "evangelise or fossilise", only for that balloon of encouragement to be almost instantly burst when I read that the response of the Church of England's General Synod was to set up a committee.
For many years I had a poster pinned above my office desk, on which was written the slogan, which was trendy at the time: "God so loved the world that He didn't send a committee." If it involves doing anything that may be sacrificial in nature, or that requires moving outside our comfort zones, then Christians can be all too ready to kick the idea into the long grass, or claim it is the responsibility of others.
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Interestingly, almost simultaneously with Archbishop Sentamu's recent impassioned appeal, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, was warning that the Church was only "a generation away from extinction". Quite why the media decided to highlight this self-evident truth, I'm not really sure. Hasn't it always been the case that the Church is only a generation away from extinction? After all, God has no grandchildren, and it's the Church's responsibility for the last two thousand years to proclaim the Gospel and evangelise in such a way that they effectively hand the baton on to the next generation.
The concern that seems to shape the media hype is not so much that the Christian witness and proclamation of the Gospel is under threat, but that the glorious heritage of British church buildings and religious pageantry may be on the way out. This was typified by a campaign conducted by one of the tabloid newspapers under the banner "Save Our Churches".
I would venture to suggest that it is only when the Church is focused on saving the nation rather than the nation saving the Church, that the future of the Church will be safeguarded. If the many, many churches up and down this land made a New Year's resolution to be focused not on repairing the church roof or installing a new set of bells, but on reaching the world that God so loves, then 2014 will indeed be a year of blessing.
Self-obsession is unhealthy in churches as well as individuals, but if we re-focus on Christ and reaching a lost world, God will ensure the harvest. To quote the Apostle Paul, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him". (1 Corinthians 2:9). The Church in Ephesus had lost its first love (Revelation 2:4). To the extent that that is also true of the Church in Britain, may 2014 be the year when we echo the hymn writer's words: "Oh, for grace to love Thee more."