Misunderstanding the Church

Thomas Mann’s phrase that ‘everything is politics’ seems undeniably true in our society in the second decade of the twenty first century. Online platforms, initially created for socialising with (and snooping on) friends old and new have become charged spaces where affinities and antagonisms feed the insatiable beast of constant controversy. The era of having privately held views, or even of shielding one’s ballot paper in a polling station, is dead. We are now all speaking, signalling, and opining at once, raising a cacophony of loyalties and hostilities which seems irreducible. The machinations of Westminster, Brussels, and the Oval Office, have assumed an authority and urgency which were not previously enjoyed, and the caricature figures holding office only feed our obsession with the political world.

In this emotionally enriched and intellectually famished atmosphere, the life of the local church is now under scrutiny. Covid-19 and the public health measures it has carried with it, mean that political decisions are now affecting some of the basic units of how Christians conduct themselves in public worship. The ramifications of this are considerable, but in the next few posts (Pt2 here) on this blog I want to dwell on the fact that the world around us, and particularly those in leadership of it, profoundly misunderstand the church (at least in its Reformed and evangelical expression). Examining this misunderstanding in the light of Scripture, history, and our own context can help us to feel less exposed, and can perhaps help us to think through how we might better inform our neighbours and leaders about what our life and purpose is.

Understanding the misunderstanding

2020 has been a year of many unexpected twists and turns. As the media welcomed the ‘roaring 20s’ in January, and as church fellowships prayerfully looked at their schedules, no one could have predicted what would befall the world by March. The idea that local churches would close their doors (volitionally across the UK in Spring, forcibly in England and Ireland by autumn) would have seemed unthinkable. The idea that many of the outreaches and initiatives which had been put in the planner would be summarily wiped out would have sounded like fiction. We have now come to live through a period which embodies the words ‘in the unlikely event’, and our sense of certainty has taken a battering.

Whether we have tolerated our new restrictions with heavy hearted patience, or now feel a resistance to them in their concept and execution, what has clearly emerged is that government and society don’t merely undervalue the work of the local church, but that they fundamentally don’t understand it. Local evangelical church fellowships find themselves categorised with anything from a cathedral, to a mosque, to a temple. The categories for church activity outlined in regulation and guidance seem hopelessly out of tune with what actually happens week on week, and the grid applied to whether congregations can gather seems to cross all kinds of lines, social, legal, and theological.

What is most surprising about this is that we are surprised. For pastors, elders, and many church members, the life of the local church regulates the rhythm of our lives, it absorbs the best of our thinking, it is the focus of much of our praying, and it is the context in which we do much of our living. We understand how the church works implicitly – so much so that we sometimes struggle to articulate that explicitly. If we are a spiritually healthy church member, the worship, fellowship, and outreach of the church we belong to has almost become part of our muscle memory, and lives in our consciousness with the force of an assumed fact. As a result of all of this, we have perhaps forgotten that most people have no idea about our existence, and zero concept about our activities. What is central to us is, at best, peripheral to our world, and most likely invisible. Even when strong programmes of outreach and care are regularly undertaken, our profile in our wider society remains minor and skewed.

The read-back that we get from government documents about what we do and how we are organised is shocking to our ears, but it is possibly more representative of how an increasingly secular world sees church life than we imagine. The corridors of power are becoming increasingly populated by a generation who have no spiritual or gospel background whatsoever. The day when even strident atheists or secularists had a kindly grandma who loves Jesus and her local church are long gone. During the early part of this month many Christians were shocked and relieved to hear the former UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, speak passionately and intelligently about the effect of legislation on places of worship. Her voice is not in the majority among politicians.

Understanding this kind of misunderstanding can help and temper our response to what governments say and do with regard to church life. With the febrile rhetoric of social media it is all too easy to slip into a form of spiritual McCarthyism where we are see potential persecutors everywhere. With that kind of filter each glitch in public understanding of the church can seem to spring from nefarious motives to shut us down, or to shut us up. There is no doubt that there are those in politics who hunger for control over the thinking, teaching, and gathering of the local church, and that overreach is always a potential with hasty and ill-begotten legislative powers. We should resist and defy this at every turn. For the greater majority of MPs and local politicians, however, they simply have neither clue nor category for Christian activity.

This should move us to lobby and to inform, no doubt, but it should primarily move us to prayer. The indifference and ignorance of our wider world to what we do is symptomatic of the waning of gospel influence in our world. We might be encouraged by good conversations when engaging in door to door work, we might be delighted when non-Christians begin attending our services, but in the grand scheme we are unknown, obscure, and largely unwanted. This can either enrage, demoralise and demotivate us, or it can drive us to our knees, asking not that God would make us more prominent socially, but more effective evangelistically, and more difficult to misunderstand. It should drive us to pray that our ministry may not be so camouflaged or neutral in tone that it can be ignored, and it should move us to ask God to pour out his Spirit on us to out into our world more fully and effectively with his message.

In the next post I will consider some of the biblical and historical parallels around the theme of misunderstanding the Church, and what we can learn from them.


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