Getting things wrong

May 9th, 2007 | By | Category: Ministry

I travelled back from the crematorium with Stephen, one of our local undertakers. Reflecting on funeral services and ceremonies, Stephen expressed concern that there were an increasing number of people where there was nothing by way of ceremony or rite of passage whereby people might find an opportunity to express their grief and perhaps find some sense of closure.

Maybe the churches are partly to blame, in our “one size fits all” approach we have probably alienated people, maybe driven away those who are at the most vulnerable point in their lives.

I read a piece this evening by Peter Cruchley-Jones, a United Reformed Church minister working on a big housing estate in Cardiff:

I came home from taking a church group on retreat to find a large group of young people huddled by a bus shelter in pouring rain, all with candles and flowers. I drove past about half an hour later, having found out that the night before a fifteen-year-old girl had been run over there and killed by someone driving recklessly in a stolen car. I stopped and joined them; there were about thirty young people, none older than sixteen. There were no adults apart from me. They all had candles and had laid flowers and had written tributes to Sian all over the bus shelter. I listened to a few of them and looked at the flowers. I even told them what I was (a vicar). They told me some of them had prayed, but mostly they were just being there where it happened. One of my churches is about two hundred to three hundred metres down the road from that bus stop. I considered opening it for them. But they needed to be at this spot. They didn’t need the church, and though they were glad I’d come and joined them, they didn’t really need me. So I left after about half an hour. They were there for three nights running, often in the rain. But they kept vigil and they sought light for the dark.

I reflected on that piece and wondered if there was space in my understanding of the Church for such “ceremonies” by groups of young people, and if young people have to create their own ceremonies and keep their own vigils, (as I have seen here when road accidents have taken place), how has the Church, of which I am part, failed them?

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  1. Well, for a start we often see young people as a problem. In our parish many young people hang about on street corners because they have nothing to do and nowhere to go.

    But we are scared to do anything to engage with them – even on the level of opening the parish hall regularly as a safe space for them to hang out – as it might upset our church, and might bring us into contact with drug-users, joy-riders etc. We don’t have the resources to deal with that.

    Ultimately, we have failed to relate to a post-christian society. Church has become somewhere that odd people go on sundays – and when we try to ‘do evangelism’ for most people it sounds like nonsense. People in trouble or grief often no longer turn to the church because they don’t believe that the church has anything to offer them. Which is mainly because we often don’t have anything to offer them.

  2. Joe,

    I would agree with you. I think what we have done is to offer them not Jesus, but the Church. I wrote a blog a few days back about Eric Liddell in “Chariots of Fire”. I think Liddell is still remembered today because his focus was upon Jesus. I think much of our attempted ‘evangelism’ has been about getting people to go to church rather than about telling the Good News. Christianity is not about a religion, it’s about a relationship and if we don’t point people towards the possibility of that relationship then we might as well call it a day.

  3. Ian,

    A friend of mine talks about ‘institutional inertia’ – describing the point where an organisation becomes so enamelled with it’s own existance that the original aims are lost and it is almost impossible to change. And that often seems to happen in churches of all denominations. Young families in particular are ‘targets’ as they are seen as the way to keep the church going into the future.

    But surely we are not interested in ‘keeping the church going’. We are interested in speaking and being the word of God in our generation. To reach out to the ‘lost’ in all their guises. The sick, the imprisoned, the forgotten and ignored and vilified. This is the essence of our existance, and so if we are not doing it we should be questioning whether we actually believe the words of Christ in the sermon on the mount, where he talks about the importance of doing over listening, or not.

    With reference to ‘evangelism’ I think that most of the resources we have are unsuitable. In the past it was possible to attract people to meetings where you could hear great orators. It was possible to engage people on doorsteps person-to-person. We cannot do that now, because those ways mostly don’t work. Schemes of the Alpha-type only ‘work’ with those at the edges of church, those who ask questions, those who are prepared to sit down for a meal to talk about abstract spiritual issues. That is quite a small percentage of people.

    So we are left with the only way that can work. The way we were told to do it in the beginning. Humble long-term sacrificial loving of our community. When people see that Church means something positive to them, maybe we will have earnt the right to tell them of the light we have found. And at the same time, maybe we will have relearnt what it really means to be a disciple.

  4. I find the insights of the Anabaptists quite helpful in trying to imagine a Church of the future:

    Christendom has endowed the churches with power which they are loathe to release (particularly the English bishops!), but only when they let go can they find the freedom to be what Jesus calls them to be.

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