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Thinking differently, planning carefully

Paul, in his letter to the Christians in Rome, says this:

 Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.1


When was the last time you changed the way you thought? An article in last week’s Guardian caught my attention, as it ran with the headline of church decline in the wake of COVID-19. However, upon closer reading, the article contained more positive news of growth in the Church of England. Attendance is up 5% in 2023 and, even more encouragingly, 6% for those under 16. I find it interesting how negative headlines often sell papers, whereas these figures presented a more hopeful picture, yet the article wanted to show these amidst a narrative of decline.

 

Truthfully, some of the statistics relating to church attendance over the past few years have been concerning. Setting aside questions about how measuring attendance at Church is an accurate metric of our Christian faith, the Church has not been in the best of health. Like so many others, I have been asking questions about what Church is in a post-modern, post-Christian society; there have to be some better ways of understanding our gathering together, practising our discipleship, and sharing our faith. Metaphors about leaving Egypt and identifying with the exiles in Babylon have helped us define our time, but I wonder how much longer these images will help.

 

In my previous career, I analysed commodity prices, currencies, and human behaviour to predict potential future directional patterns in the financial markets. Many of these utilised the mathematics of tidal patterns and Fibonacci ratios found in nature. Without boring you with all the details, what regularly occurs after a significant movement in one direction is that there will be a correction that is formed of three lesser moves. Often, such corrections would indicate either a new emerging trend or, more likely, an exaggeration of the original movement; the trick has always been identifying which one.

 

A few weeks ago, I sensed God speaking about the Church, its decline, and what is to come. I have been weighing and testing this with others to ensure it was not too much red wine and strong cheese before bed; I don’t think it is. So, here goes (deep breath).

 

Many companies that did well in response to the pandemic have seen their share prices decline or have recently gone out of business. I believe we are at a tipping point where face-to-face activities are becoming once again more important than virtual meetings. Online food shopping has declined in almost all the major supermarkets as people have returned to shopping in-store. People don’t want to buy a car online; they want to drive it, see the garage and get a sense of who they will be dealing with if anything goes wrong. Anecdotal evidence suggests shoppers prefer a physical checkout over an automated one. There is a societal shift going on. Like it or not, the Church follows culture in a delayed response; the recovery of in-person is beginning to filter through to attendance. As with the Church of England, I believe we will see growth statistics emerge over the coming months that are more encouraging; some might even use the language of revival. I believe those who have promoted Church planting as a strategy will feel vindicated. The language of Church growth will resurface as several strategies begin to bear fruit. Stories of human ingenuity coupled with Divine providence will be told. While I believe there will be genuine reasons to give thanks and praise, many will secretly congratulate themselves for their brilliance. Human resourcefulness and inventiveness will be perceived to have fixed another problem. Those who have predicted the decline of the inherited Church will no longer be identified as the respected prophetic writers and commentators they once were. The institutions will feel emboldened that their cost-cutting strategies and structural reorganisations have paid off, and interest in Christian spirituality may even become ‘trendy’ as musicians, sportspeople, and actors begin to talk openly about their Christian faith.

 

It could be all too easy to over-hype the news as we tell and re-tell stories of hope. However, I believe God is saying we need to think differently; we need to adapt our language so that decline is no longer the predominant narrative, but equally, we should act cautiously. Whilst the evidence might suggest a turnaround, it could be nothing more than a correction before a further significant decline. I believe God is calling us to plan carefully during this time, building on the foundations of what began to emerge in terms of more prevalent churches that are smaller, nimbler and perhaps not as reliant on the institutions' funding streams, leadership structures and resources.

 

Therefore, I sense God saying to each of us, through the words of the Apostle Paul, that we shouldn’t conform to the world’s patterns and narratives, but instead, we should change the way we think, seeking God’s ways, not ours. The coming months will be a time of insecurity and uncertainty; even as I write this, an election has been called in the UK, which feels like such an inappropriate time, but conversely, it is long overdue. It is a season for us each to be as wise as a serpent but as soft as doves. We should be cautious in becoming overly optimistic, but equally, we need to lay down some of the metaphors of exile…for now.


Simon Mattholie CEO, Rural Ministries


Romans 12:2a (New Living Translation)

1 Comment


bobstoneremail
May 27

Simon, thank you for these comments and insights. Reflecting upon the desire to purchase a car, you say that people need to feel it, see it, hear it possibly rather than secure the bargain online. Buying a car is one thing; isn't church another? People are migrating away from the traditional, seeking a more spiritual sense of God. The teachings of their Sunday School still haunt them, and that trauma is heightened if they hear the same words they heard decades ago. I'm hearing a call for greater clarity in what exactly the Bible is saying in terms of who wrote that passage, why, to who, and when? To understand that some of those stories are metaphorical rather than divinely…

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