If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got, says Rick Hill. It’s time to dream again, and let God reignite a vision for the evangelisation of the nation in each and every one of our hearts
Are you a ‘glass half-full’ or a ‘glass-half empty’ type of person? Are you more naturally drawn to pessimism in the face of challenges, or hopefulness about future possibilities?
In this cultural moment, it might feel hard to maintain a hope-filled faith. In the shifting cultural sands of the West, Christianity is no longer a dominant worldview. With census statistics revealing falling attendance and rising age profiles, the Church may feel pushed to the edge of society. Many beyond the Church suggest that its best days are behind it, while within, challenges and frustrations dominate our discussions.
In some ways, cold-hard reality can be helpful. It’s important to humble ourselves and realise we are not in the position of strength that we once were. There is also a need for pragmatism. Can we resource ministry to the same levels we once did? Perhaps grand ideologies need to be balanced with practical application.
We need a mindset of multiplication over preservation. We should be opening doors, not pulling up drawbridges
And yet, the Bible regularly reveals that realism and pragmatism can crush the work of the Spirit. When young Joseph articulated an alternative vision for the future, his older brothers squashed the dreams of their younger sibling. The fleeing slaves panicked as the Egyptian army pursued, but Moses held up his hands in faith, believing for a miracle. Most of the spies were afraid of the giants they glimpsed in the promised land, but Caleb and Joshua saw its beauty. Ezekiel looked upon a valley of dry bones, but God breathed life into an army.
Without ignoring our current reality or dismissing prudent pragmatism, perhaps our most pressing need is to develop a faith-filled, prayer-fuelled vision of what could be. So, what if we prioritised prayer above despair, faith over pragmatism and pioneering instead of reductionism? Here are some ways the church could do that…
1. A missionary posture
Central to the flourishing of the Church in a post-Christian society will be its willingness to adopt a missionary posture. The fringe shouldn’t be a place we fear. Rather it’s an opportunity for us to recapture our missionary distinctive. We aren’t a ruling body seeking to maintain our dominance, but rather a creative minority embodying the values of an alternative kingdom.
In the past, churches got by merely sustaining their activities and pastoring its people, but today’s Church can’t afford not to be missional. A missionary posture will mean not merely focusing on those in our pews, but orientating our activities to be accessible to those beyond our walls.
2. Planting and pioneering
The planting of new churches is understood by many missional thinkers to be the best hope for the evangelisation of a nation. Studies show that the average new church gains most of its new members from those who don’t attend any worshipping body. Churches more than 15 years old gain 80 per cent of their members by transfer from other congregations. Church planting reaches new people because, to quote Tim Keller: “New congregations attract a higher percentage of venturesome people who value creativity, risk, innovation and future orientation.”
I have seen this with my own eyes, through the planting of new churches in Belfast and Dublin within the denomination I serve. Each are examples of congregations with a vision to reach beyond their boundaries. The calling of the Church is not to merely maintain what already exists. Salt is to be spread and the resources we have been entrusted with aren’t to be buried in the ground in fear. We need a mindset of multiplication over preservation. We should be opening doors, not pulling up drawbridges. Let’s identify more communities that need reaching and more churches that can be established.
3. Equipping the saints
Jesus told his disciples that “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37). While the negative part of that statement is often focused on, this should actually encourage us - there is a plentiful harvest! We might assume the culture is too hard or people aren’t interested, but, according to Jesus, the issue isn’t the culture, crowd or conditions but the presence of Christians in the field.
Our most pressing need is to develop a faith-filled, prayer-fuelled vision of what could be
It’s often said that the best resources in mission aren’t finances or buildings, but people. I have witnessed incredible examples of God’s people serving in a whole variety of ways, whether in church-based roles, chaplaincy work or as every day disciples, representing Jesus wherever they are. How can we help every disciple of Christ see the task of mission as integral to their calling? Embracing ‘every member ministry’, to not just service the Church but represent Jesus wherever they are, is vital. This isn’t the task of the few, but the many.
And while we should encourage gifted Christian leaders to consider roles within the Church, there is also need to train and release people into other forms of ministry. In seasons of history where the Church is declining or people aren’t coming to faith in large numbers, the pressing need is for leaders who focus on the work of evangelism and seek to reach those who don’t naturally engage with the Church. We don’t just need more pastors and teachers; we need more evangelists.
4. Living by faith
There’s little doubt that Covid-19 accelerated decline and increased uncertainty in the Church, highlighting the reality of nominalism. Now, we have a choice: consolidate, close and accept our best days are in the past, or act with urgency, pray with intensity, lead with dependency, dream as visionaries and serve sacrificially, seeking a change in the story.
There is a danger that the Church will merely manage the decline, while failing to consider how God’s Spirit would seek to breathe new life into our models and mission. Let’s never lose sight of the need for faith. A guiding question for every declining church might be: ‘What could help change the trajectory ten years from now?’ Without specific plans to do something different, it is likely the direction of travel will continue to be the same. Instead, let’s identify new possibilities and step out in faith.
The call to dream again
So what if we helped the Church rediscover her missionary call? What if we grew our footprint, enlarged our territory and preached the gospel to new people in new places and in fresh ways? What if more evangelists were trained, more workers raised up and more churches were planted in the coming decade than in the previous one?
Christianity shows the best is yet to come. After three glorious years of teaching crowds, healing people, feeding thousands and seeing God’s kingdom at hand, Jesus told his disciples that “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing and will do even greater things than these” (John 14:12). It’s hard to imagine how the disciples could do greater things than Jesus, yet that’s exactly what he promised.
The calling of the Church is not to merely maintain what already exists
There is no such thing as the glory days in God’s kingdom. In the words of New York pastor Jon Tyson: “There is a rumour going around the West that, in spite of the avalanche of change and the often-repeated accusation of irrelevance, a church has actually survived. Yes, she is stained; yes, she is broken; but she is here. Her Lord is at work within her. The bride is becoming beautiful; his presence is becoming tangible; the body is becoming functional. Beauty is rising and resisting the brokenness. He will get the glory. But you and I can be part of the process.”
The Church’s response to the challenges of today should always be one of bold faith, creative imagination and courageous action. There is a way forward, Jesus is still good news, the fields remain harvest-white, and the Church, confidently and creatively adopting a missionary posture, is essential to the health and wellbeing of this nation.