You can win a lot of skirmishes without winning a battle. You can treat a lot of symptoms without affecting a disease. And you can do an awful lot of good things without doing the thing that might really make the difference.

For the last two decades the British church has been trying to work out how to reach our nation and for the last two decades there have been great flurries of activity – big advertising campaigns, a Decade of Evangelism, a massive growth in youth work, the expansion of Alpha, the growth of the big conferences, the publication of a phalanx of Bible translations, the launch of Cell, FaithWorks, Jubilee 2000, the burgeoning growth of the Christian music culture, increasing cooperation between Catholics and Protestants – a lot has been done, not all of it has been successful, but still a lot to be thankful for. However, after all that, is the remnant left in the Church actually better placed to reach our nation? Or have we missed something? Well, diagnosis precedes treatment.

Five questions in search of an answer

Imagine for a moment you’re in the audience at a Christian conference. The speaker introduces himself and then asks:

“As a matter of interest are there any ministers here?

Do you put up your hand?

1. Yes No

He then says, “Or any missionaries?”

Do you put up your hand?

2. Yes No

He then says, “Or any full-time Christian workers?”

Do you put up your hand?

3. Yes No

Up on the screen in front of you there’s an image of a fragrance bottle. It’s called Touch and it’s made by Burberry. The question is posed:

“Do you think that God cares what the Burberry company calls this fragrance?”

4. Yes No

The image on the screen changes. You are looking at a grey-brown mammal that’s about the length of a Ford Transit. It has a long trunk and large flat, flapping ears.

“Do you think that God cares what we call this creature?”

5. Yes No

I’ve asked all those questions up and down the country. On the whole fewer, than 10% answer ‘yes’ to any of them. Instincts are important, and so, of course, are the kinds of questions you ask. If, for example, I asked you whether you believed this verse:

‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for people.’ (Colossians 3:23)

You’d almost certainly put your hand up. But if I then asked you whether builders and barristers were treated with equal respect in your church the answer might be different. We can mentally assent to all kinds of truths but what really matters is not mental assent but operational reality.

Amazing as it may seem, God is actually interested in what we call large grey-brown pachyderms, a fact attested by Genesis 2:19 where he brings the beasts and the birds ‘to the man to see what he would name them.’ Given that reality, you probably wouldn’t need a fleece to figure out that God would also be interested in how the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve use their linguistic abilities to name a fragrance – which is after all something so obviously connected to our sensuality and sexuality – Eternity or Opium?

What we do matters to God. But most Christians don’t really believe it. Similarly, the truth is that every Christian is a minister but most don’t see themselves that way. Every Christian is also a missionary – someone sent by God into the world to live and share his love and truth – but most don’t see themselves that way. Every Christian is a full-time Christian worker but most Christians don’t see themselves that way. They see themselves ultimately as part-time Christian workers.

And they see themselves that way because that’s what they are taught – explicitly or implicitly. Despite all the rhetoric of the ministry and priesthood of all believers, it is almost always understood as the ministry and priesthood of all believers in the neighbourhood or within the local church community. It’s about how we use our spare time, not our whole time.

Of course, you could argue that my research methodology is faulty and my questions deceptive and you would have a case, if it were not for the fact that there is an enormous amount of research that backs up the observation that British church culture is overall much, much more interested in our leisure time than all our time. Indeed, LICC’s recent Imagine Research among 750 evangelicals confirmed, for example, that the workplace is where those who work outside the home:

  • spend most time
  • have the highest number of challenging issues
  • have most relationships with not-yet believers... but
  • find church teaching least helpful.

Now, if this were only an issue that related to the workplace that would be one thing but the research revealed a much deeper issue. The problem in the British Church is not that a topic has been ignored, so that all we have to do is deal with the topic and all will be well – preach four sermons on work and start a business breakfast.

No, the core problem is not about a failure to see God as a worker God, and humans as created in the image of God as workers to cooperate with him in creating a context for human flourishing. The core of the problem is not simply a failure to grasp that the school place, university place and the workplace are the key arenas for ministry and mission because they are the places where Christians and not-yet Christians spend significant amounts of time together.

The core problem is not the outrageous waste of talent and missionary and ministry energy that the failure to mobilise God’s people for their ministry in the world represents – though it is a tragedy. As one woman put it, “Some people die without knowing the ministry God has for them”. Indeed, they do.
No, the key problem is not that our teachers have failed to regard our work as significant – though they have – the key problem is that we have failed to regard all of life as significant. That is, we have severely diminished the scope of the salvation that Jesus came to bring.

The Whole-Life Gospel

Certainly, Jesus came to die in our place, to satisfy the wrath of the Father, to take away the sin of the world and to defeat death and satan. But he also came to bring abundant life. And that abundant life is not an ethereal, disembodied life in the spirit, without reference to the everyday realities of life in the flesh. No, abundant life involves living as material human beings. It involves purposeful activity in the world, the production of goods and services, the release of potential through endeavour – sand into silicon chips, children into confident adults, disparate individuals into productive teams. It involves the expression of who we are through art and music and food and celebration and sport and dance.

Values before Activities

The challenge to the 21st Century Church is not one that can be addressed by a new set of programmes it is one that must be addressed by the rediscovery of the holistic Gospel, of whole-life Christianity. The core issue is not programmes but ethos, not activities but values. One of the reasons Christians have lost confidence in the Gospel is because they have not been taught how to relate it to their ordinary everyday realities. If the Gospel does not make any difference to the way I spend my ‘ordinary’ life, then all I really have to offer my friends and colleagues is a leisure time option – a Sunday service to attend. And that would be a hollow mimicking of our culture which lives, as the Nat West slogan puts it, ‘for the weekend.’ Or for the next match, the next programme, the next fix, the next purchase, or the next orgasm. Consumerist culture lives yearning for moments of special intensity. But the Christian life is meant to be lived in the now. We have a future hope but the grace of God transforms the present – enemies are turned into people to love, bosses into those we should serve, drudgery into service for the King of the Universe, pay rises into opportunities for generosity, dough into bread – this is the transformation of the ordinary. As Therese Lisieux put it:

‘Everything is so big in religion ... to pickup a pen out of love can convert a soul.’

The problem the contemporary Christian church faces is not merely to teach Christians how to share their faith, the problem in our rapidly changing, post-Christian culture, is to learn how to live it. The barrier to reaching our culture is not the culture of the world but the culture of the church. We need to engage our culture with a whole-life Christian culture, not an escapist, disengaged, leisure-time culture. Certainly, many people today are looking for an integrated way of life, that empowers people to be consistent in values and action in every area of life – and therefore to be authentic. But this is easier typed than done.

Singing Christ in Babylon

Overall, our culture has changed faster than any of our major social institutions have been able to cope with – look at how the speed of medical advance has outpaced the capacity of medical ethicists to engage with the issues their technologies have raised; look at how the pace of values change has outstripped the educational services’ ability to foresee the impact on sexual practice, drug use and concepts of citizenship; look at how difficult it is to put any kind of significant controls on the pot pourri of pop, explicit sex advice and cosmetics that 10 to 12 year old children are exposed to in magazines like Sugar and Bliss.

No, virtually every major institution has been left behind by the speed of values change. The Church is no exception. We live in Babylon. So we must learn to sing the song of Christ in an alien land. And that requires a whole different approach to being a whole-life disciple of Christ and to making wholelife disciples for Christ.

The reality, however, is that we hardly know how to make disciples any more. We have an ever-increasing armoury of evangelistic tools and resources designed to make converts but very, very little material or experience in making disciples in the interactive, dialogical, personal way that Jesus trained his close followers. Indeed, very few of our pastor-teachers have ever been trained to make disciples like that. Trained to preach, trained to counsel, trained to lead? Yes, yes, and yes. But trained to disciple?

So where are we? We need to rediscover the riches of the whole-life Gospel and we need to figure our how to live it and disciple others in it too. In sum, we need a radical shift in the content and culture of British Church Life and a radical change in methodology. At least that’s what we need, if we want to win more than skirmishes and leave the next generation of Christians better equipped to live and share the whole-life good news than we are now. Any volunteers?