I looked down through the clear plastic floor of the travel pod. We were going at a speed I didn ’t like to think about and beneath our vehicle the grass blurred into a single green sheet. “Er...where ’s the road?” I asked. “Where ’s the M40?” “This is the M40,”said Helen, fiddling with the buttons on her silver air-suit. “This is an anti-magnetic pod. Hidden under there is a huge magnetic strip which pushes us away. Most roads had the strip laid down on top of the surface, but on the motorways it was thought nicer to disguise them. Bury them underground.”
“You ’ve let the grass grow under your feet.” She smiled. “Exactly. A fitting metaphor for our journey, don ’t you think?” I did not return her smile. The truth was I was finding the journey much harder than I could have imagined. Helen patted my knee. “You ’ve had a shock,” she said. “This must be difficult for you.” “I feel... responsible,” I said. “I spent so much of my time criticising the church, mocking it, challenging it. But I never thought one day it wouldn’t be there. I never thought it would disappear. It ’s like losing a leg.”
“That ’s the point of this journey, I think,” said Helen. “Maybe when you get back you know you have to do more than make fun. Maybe the leg can be saved.” She pressed a button on the console in front of her and the pod swerved left. We passed through houses and streets, the urban sprawl that was London. The houses looked much as they always had, except for a wide proliferation of silver, mirrored solar panels on doors and roofs, covering the houses in shimmering scales like a fish. Eventually we drew quietly to a halt in front of a pair of broken and rusty iron gates. The drive beyond them was broken and disused, surrounded by a wild and overgrown vegetation.
“Where are we?” “Don ’t you recognise it?” I looked at the gates. My mind seemed as overgrown as the landscape I was looking at. Then, slowly, a memory slithered out. “Wasn’t this a Bible college? I remember... friends came here to study. To become...” The words trailed away. No need for ministers now. No posts to fill. No congregations to preach to. There was a sign on the gates. ‘Building Acquired By MicroSpore Genetic Industries. Building Better People. Keep Out.’
The old lady took one look at the sign and then, with surprising strength reached out and ripped it down. She threw it on the floor and gave the rusty gates a kick that would have felled a 16 stone prop forward. “Shall we go in?” she said, sweetly. “Whatever you say,” I said.. Inside the grounds, the undergrowth was thicker than ever. “So what happened?” I asked. “Doesn't anybody study theology nowadays?” “Oh yes,” she replied.. “Only it tends to be part of the University’s archaeology department.” “Archaeology?” She took a vicious swipe at a six foot high weed. “Yes. Or you can do some of it as part of an anthropology degree. You know, ancient custom, that sort of thing.” She paused.
“Be careful,” said Helen, “There are snakes around here.” I looked down uncertainly at the dense grass that hid my feet. “Snakes? In London?”
“Happened a few years ago. A batch of Red Mambas got out of a zoo somewhere. They’re all over the place now. Used to be too cold for them in our country but, you know, since global warming...” “Yes, I ’ve been meaning to ask about that. What effect did it have? Was the place sunnier?” “Britain? No,of course not. But the rain was a lot warmer. Anyway,we didn ’t come here to talk about climate change - although perhaps we did in a way.”
She paused and for the first time seemed to be breathing heavily. “When the climate changes you either adapt or die,” she said. “But first you have to recognise that the temperature is changing.” “What do you mean?” “Have you ever boiled a frog?” I stared at her. “No. Funnily enough that was not one of the regular entertainments in the Page household. We tended to limit ourselves to pulling the legs off spiders. Occasionally, for a treat, we would microwave a hamster...” She interrupted my sarcasm. “Put a frog into boiling water and it jumps out. But put it in cold water and heat it gradually, the frog doesn’t know what’s happening. It stays in the water and boils to death.”
We reached the forecourt and a rough, broken area of tarmac where the weeds and brambles were less pressing. Before us stood the broken, battered old college building. Helen gestured at the building. “Behold!” she said.. “A boiled frog.” “The problem with the colleges wasn’t what they taught the students, it was what they didn't teach.” We were sitting on two large blocks of concrete, staring at the old building. “There were lots of people studying here every year,” Helen continued. “But the real question is, were they studying the right things?”
She turned to me. “What do you think the single most important skill is in leading a church? “I ’ve never really thought about it.” “Oh yes you have. You sat and thought about it in every church you were a part of. Every church you went into, every leader you met you were looking to them for one thing.” “Which was what?” She looked at me. “Leadership,” she said. “That ’s what you need to lead a church. That ’s what you need to take the organisation forward. You need to be a leader. You need leadership skills. And what did we teach them? Theology.”
She started to laugh. “I remember talking to a student who came to our church way back when you were still alive,” she said. “Back at the turn of the century. He told me how much training they had on management skills. Guess.” I shrugged. “Well, by then even the colleges should have got their act together ... so I ’d guess about 10 sessions or something?” “One morning.” “One?” “One morning out of three years. That ’s all. One morning in management skills, to train people who were going to have to come out and chair meetings, build teams, organise volunteers, set goals, manage their time, train others. One morning!”
She wiped her eyes. “They spent a heck of a lot of time learning about Ancient Israel. It ’s just a shame they couldn ’t squeeze in a little more about modern Britain.” “Yes but these were Bible colleges. You are surely not suggesting that we shouldn ’t teach theology to those who are going to preach the Bible.” “Of course not. The real question is why should those who can preach always be the ones to lead? Why is it assumed that just because you can put together a neat three-pointer on ‘The Purpose Of The Table Lamp In The Old Testament’, then you automatically have the abilities to lead a group of 50 volunteers?”
She sighed. “Of course leaders need to be theologically and biblically literate. But more than that, you have to be able to manage a team. The ministerial training of your time was geared to those who felt they had a gift for teaching. But as soon as they got out of college and into the real world, they discovered that teaching was only a small part of the picture. They were leaders and they were suddenly handed roles and responsibilities for which they were ill-equipped and with which they simply could not cope.”
She paused. “In a way they didn’t read the Bible well enough. You see, one of the things you get from reading the Old Testament is that the prophets and the priests were not the Kings.” “So where should they have looked? What kinds of skills should we have been giving them?” “They should have looked around them. Outside of the church there were many organisations with visionary leaders and entrepreneurs. Many of the people leading these were Christians. But did the colleges call on them to teach? Did the Bible colleges call experts from the world of industry or communication or teaching into teach their students? Rarely, if ever. No, they might have been leading successful organisations but they didn’t have a theology degree. So, of course, what they had to say wasn’t important.” “Well, I know people who would argue that the church was a successful organisation. I mean it survived for two thousand years.”
She stared at me. Suddenly into the undergrowth I thought I saw a flash of purple and red, a reptilian slither that disappeared as soon as it had arrived. “You know,” said Helen. “The dinosaurs were the most successful species ever. Right up until the point where they suddenly became extinct.” It was still. I could hear birds singing, insects chirruping. I thought about what she said. “There were surveys done in America,” I said. “Asking students, professors and church-goers what ministerial candidates should learn. The professors put knowledge top of the agenda. The students thought learning skills was most important.”
She looked at me. “What did the churches want?” “Relationships. They thought the ability to nurture, to create and to encourage relationships was the most important part of ministerial training.” Helen said, “Of course you need all three.” “So what should have happened?” “Selection first. I wonder how much emphasis was laid on making sure that the candidate had the right qualifications? Oh, I don ’t mean academic qualifications - they were covered well enough. You could easily see the certificates and read the grades. But other qualifications.” “Such as?” “When the great preacher Charles Spurgeon set up his college in the nineteenth century he started in a back room in his church. And those who were allowed to study had to demonstrate two things - first that they were preaching in their church, second that they had made converts. Nothing more. He wanted to know whether they had the practical skills necessary to make the most of what they had to learn.”
“Second, students should have been given so much more real on-the-ground experience. Placements were not enough. What can a six week placement really teach you about handling responsibility and leading a church? Long-term placements are the only thing that really give students a grounding in the realities of their work. On-the-job training; in post.” “Third, they needed to look around them. Look into the real world, see what skills were needed, how they could best communicate their message.” “Environment scanning,” I said. “I remember learning it on a management course. It ’s just a posh management-speak for looking around you.”
“Exactly. But you see all those are functions of leadership. First, the raw talent, second the hands-on experience and third, the ability to look at what your enemy is doing - and steal his good ideas.” She smiled. “Vision statements,” she said. “Do you remember those? A feature of all good organisations in your time. Vision statements. Aims and objectives. Basic management tools. But how many churches didn’t have them? And how many rejected them because they were ‘too worldly ’? And so they blundered on. They had sermon after sermon, knowledge till it was pouring out of their ears. But no idea of where they were going, what they were supposed to be doing or how they would know if they actually got there. And these places carried on teaching their doctrine, their theology, their church history, while all around the world was boiling.”
There was a silence. Something rustled in the long grass. “Look, when we started out this journey you told me that the real reason why the church died out in this country was because Christians weren’t different enough, because we were too much like the rest of the world around us. Now you ’re telling me that we weren’t like the world enough.” She shook her head. “You take the good things and reject the bad,” she snapped. “You learn the skills. Look at the tools the world uses to get its message across. Look at how they organise themselves. And then do it better.”
A pigeon rose. Cumbersome, flapping from the undergrowth. “As harmless as doves,” said Helen. “And as wise as serpents.” Suddenly there was a pain. A sudden rustling beneath my feet. A red line, like blood. “Talking of serpents,” I said. “I think I ’ve just been bitten on the leg.” And with that I passed into blackness.
Church Invisible continues next month.
To discuss the issues raised visit www.christianityandrenewal.com/discus or why not copy this article and the questions right and use this as a discussion starter at your next leaders meeting or small group? To discuss if when I get back.
- What skills do you need to run a church? How many of these are ‘management’ skills?
- Has the church got a clear vision of where it is going?
- Is there a good balance between ‘theology’ and practice in our church? Or are we just learning things we don’t need to know?
- Do we scan the environment? What great ideas from outside the church have we taken and adapted for our use? 5.
Are there people in the church who should be given the chance to gain hands-on experience now?