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Are you an eye or an oyster?

Regular readers will undoubtedly be familiar with the comments we have been making over the past few months about the culture and context the church finds itself in. It is a time of challenge, uncertainty and, for many, fear. Juxtaposed to this, we at RM believe that God is up to something quite exciting. It is a time of incredible opportunity which will impact and shape how we gather, where we gather and who does what.

What if I could offer three questions to help you navigate this time? Three questions that could help you engage more profoundly with your rural community. Questions that would empower you to join in where God is already at work and give you the permission to stop some of the things that have perhaps passed their sell-by date. What I am suggesting is not rocket science, nor a gimmick, simply a way of tackling the indifference that many are experiencing, and instead, help us reignite a passion for God’s kingdom come in our local communities.

Let’s be honest, many of the existing structures and systems of church seem no longer relevant in a post-Christian culture. Emerging statistics of post-lockdown suggest that gathered congregations are approximately 30% smaller than in late 2019. I don’t think people have necessarily left the church; they have simply stopped attending. Some of this may be because the ‘church’ has decentralised and dispersed rather than decreased. My suspicion, however, is that many people have become largely indifferent.

You become indifferent to things when you no longer see value in them. The model of an hour on Sunday consisting primarily of five songs and a twenty to thirty-minute monologue is a format that has been mostly unchanged for decades. When we reconvened, we largely returned to what we were doing before March 2020, on the assumption that people would return and resume the same ministry model that was in place before the pandemic. I think we’ve been overestimating our effectiveness as church with this model. Historically, the church has wagered almost everything on gathering people at a specific time in a particular building. We turned congregations into consumers, who were no longer seeing the value of in-person attendance, so under the guise of lockdown, they dropped it and haven’t all returned.

If the church is going to realise its full mission, buildings will have to stop being the epicentre of ministry (or the only centre of ministry in some cases). Sunday’s will need to look different; the centralised structures will need to be more enabling and less controlling. Church will probably be a lot smaller but conversely more prevalent and more impactful.

I promised you three questions. They are not the final questions, and there may well be better ways of asking them. I think they are questions that could equally be asked and answered by those of no faith.

  • Where do you experience the beauty and hopefulness of this community?

  • Where do you experience the brokenness and hurt of this community?

  • What are some of the ongoing ways in which our lives might bring beauty and healing into the places of brokenness?

These questions will not impact the style and content of a Sunday morning service, but they may help us figure out what God is doing and where. They may encourage us to explore how our habits and priorities as disciple-making disciples could sustain, support, and supplement our communities. They are questions that I believe will move us away from centralised programmes and maintaining professionals to keep things afloat and instead release a latent potential of kingdom impact and disciple mobilisation. They are questions that invite us to take risks, be willing to fail, learn from such failures, and then discover new ways of being.

In his book ‘Positively irritating’ Jon Ritner observes how a post-Christendom sandstorm is blowing across the Western world and how each church is faced with a choice; are we an eye or an oyster? One is a body that rejects and repels new cultural environments in an attempt to preserve the status quo; the other is a body that embraces change, adapts, and innovates in response, creating something of incredible beauty and value.

I’m excited about the future. I’m trying to be an oyster and adapt to what I sense and see God doing around me. How about you?

“I am about to do something new.

See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?”

Isaiah 43:19a

Simon Mattholie

CEO, Rural Ministries


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