If you finished this sentence with ‘part three’, you are now officially old, especially if you can name other tracks by Ian Dury and the Blockheads (Hit me with your rhythm stick, what a waste…I could go on!) Notwithstanding spurious references to 1970s punk and new wave music, I believe that as Christians, we have reasons to be cheerful, or at least optimistic, despite what might seem some alarming headlines.
The initial 2021 census results on religiosity suggest that, once again, those declaring a Christian faith have declined in England and Wales, from 71% of the population in 2001 to 46% in 2021. It is not my place to try to spin these figures and speak of the incredible evangelistic opportunity we have in front of us. The only observation I would make is that we are becoming more diverse as a nation; difference is here to stay! This suggests that we must think carefully about mission, church, and discipleship and how we might express these so that more people might be drawn towards Jesus.
We need to carefully discern our context before rushing to plant or re-establish Christian community in these spaces. It could be argued that for too long, we have been seeking to shape the context around us rather than allowing the context to shape us. Please hear my heart, I am not suggesting a dilution of the gospel, nor am I suggesting that we should permit culture to overly influence us; quite the reverse, we should be shaping and challenging culture, but culture is different to context. Let me attempt an analogy to explain, with the caveat that, as with many metaphors, it will break down at some point!
You may recall that COVID wasn’t the only thing dominating our headlines in 2020/21. The wildfire season around the globe was the most devastating that has been seen in history. Lives were lost, homes were destroyed, wildlife was impacted, and the landscape changed. In Australia alone, 46 million acres of land were burnt. Despite the devastation caused by the bushfires, many places showed encouraging signs of recovery just a few months after the disaster. Fire burns at different intensities. Some towering trees died whilst others were only singed and are now recovering.
The first plants to reappear after a fire typically have grown more resistant over time to the flames, benefiting from an open canopy, minerals left by the fire, and re-emerging wildlife. The natural pattern of recovery after a wildfire is referred to as ‘ecological succession’. This is the process whereby the land, plants and wildlife move through various ecological stages in order to return to a state of relative stability. It's like hitting the ‘reset’ button on the life cycle of a forest.
My growing suspicion is that in the West, we have been experiencing a devastating fire in the church, perhaps culminating with the COVID pandemic and subsequent lockdowns and borne out by the recent census data. Nevertheless, I am beginning to detect signs of hope and life, like green buds emerging from the ashes of a fire. It can take many years before the ground cover returns to what it was before a blaze. Some pine trees were so heavily damaged, with needles burned off the branches, that they will never regenerate. Similarly, some of the churches that have struggled more recently, despite very impressive histories of attendance and influence, might never recover. No matter how hard we might try, as with the pine tree, they cannot be resurrected. Some of what is emerging in their place, however, just like the diversity in species and size of a forest, is exciting!
Some trees which were scorched by the fires, are now re-growing. They have what is called ‘epicormic buds’ (isn’t Google a wonderful thing!), producing a cluster of leaves that lie beneath the bark and are protected from fire. These now stimulate the tree to re-sprout and regenerate branches. Could the equivalent be those Christians who have held tightly to some of the more monastic traditions, who have maintained a rootedness in their communities, are now placed to help growth and regeneration begin?
Our context has changed, just like the landscape changes after a fire. What is emerging in terms of Christian community is perhaps different to before, a re-wilding if you like. There might be some similarities and evidence of re-growth in places, but the overarching lesson is that it is different. How we planted churches, engaged in mission, and attempted to grow disciples even ten years ago, might no longer be fit for our emerging context.
Honestly, I am excited. I am seeing mission break out, and churches begin to form in places I never thought possible. I am seeing new ministry models that maximise the local resources and prophetically speak into and challenge our culture. I am seeing the Spirit working on the margins, in the burned and barren places, and generating life and growth. I have many reasons to be cheerful. I simply plea that we would not go back and try to reforest our context with neat lines of trees – but rather respond to what God is doing, which is, so often, surprising.
“Look and be amazed at what's happening! Even if you were told, you would never believe what's taking place now.” Paraphrase of Habakkuk 1:5
CEO, Rural Ministries