The grief of the Israelites forced into exile and facing a future of living as captives is eloquently expressed in Psalm 137. Yet whilst their context had changed, their faith had deepened as they looked to God and begged Him for help. Their loss was profound but uppermost, above even the anger, was the burning question:
'How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?'
They needed to affirm who they were: the people of God, and to affirm whom they had placed their hope in: the Lord God. Everything else was taken but not their faith. Yet they had not only lost the places where they prayed and praised, their captor treated their songs as entertainment rather than sacred prayers of the heart.
How, they asked, could they worship now in this context? The Israelites hadn't abandoned their faith or their first love - if anything they'd been reminded of how important it actually was to them - but this was not where they felt at home. They didn't know how to go about being God's people in this context and this was something they'd have to learn in the long painful decades of exile ahead of them.
Does any of this resonate with you?
So many of my conversations these days are peppered with references to churches that have closed, are about to or have determined to decline. There are great swathes of the countryside that have been emptied of an obvious church presence and yet still there are disciples asking: how do we sing the songs of the Lord in this strange land? This land where the visible signs of a community of faith have vanished as places of worship have become holiday lets and second homes. How do we be the church here and now?
This decline has been forecast for a very long time, but few have really been paying attention. "We are praying for revival" - I have heard this countless times when people have talked of church growth.
I know I'm not the only disciple who grew tired of this rhetoric long ago. In the words of Gareth Davidson, a Baptist minister on the Welsh borders:
"There are too many people in our churches whose idea of the future is the picture of the past.'"
Trying to lead a community with this attitude is incredibly hard because whilst your heart is burning to be with the community, you are forced to prepare services for consumption on a Sunday for the 'faithful'.
And I get it - I really do! I too have sat gripped by a sermon that has spoken to my heart and felt buoyed up by communal praise on a Sunday morning. Even more, I have trained to preach, to teach, to craft and lead a service - all the things the traditional church demands of a competent minister - the idea of letting go of this and doing something that doesn't seem to value these skills, is a hard pill to swallow. Deliberately being available to serve in ways unspecified, to worship communally in a manner yet to be determined, looking out for jobs locally so you can get to know the people outside a faith community rather than spending all your time with those already in it - oh it's hard to grasp this challenge cheerfully!
But we adapt to this landscape and learn how to be the church differently or we stop being useful. I have a strong sense we have been sent into this new land by God as an act of kindness. We have been terrified to let go of the familiar and now God is gently but firmly moving us forward.
After a lifetime of traditional church attendance I am now part of a tiny church called The Well near Kington led by Duncan and Lesley MacLean who felt the call to gather differently. We meet in their front room once a month. Part of the time is spent by ourselves listening to the Spirit and then sharing what's been discerned. There's lots of prayer, lots of caring about one another and we share a meal. I am still getting used to the freedom that less attendance and communal activity gives me to be a disciple in my community outside the walls of a building. It's hard to unlearn the habits of a lifetime but we are never too old to do this.
How would you like to be church? What's your vision of the future of the church? Do you even want to be part of shaping a new way of 'being church' in this strange land?
The RM Staff team are mulling these kind of questions over all the time and we'd love to know what you think....
Director: Wales and South West England
Push out even deeper
First event 23rd May - book now.
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