Despair is tempting. It might also be infectious. I’ve arrived at that conclusion after noticing the increasing numbers of people apparently speaking and living out of their conviction that the church is dying. Commonly people point to statistics which describe and highlight the obvious numerical decline and aging profile of most congregations. It also seems to be assumed in media reports connected with questions about ‘relevance’ and how church has been forsaken in pursuit of competing demands for attention.
More worryingly, I’ve also noticed it in reports from within the church which veer dangerously close to implying that we need to change, reorganise, restructure to halt the decline and save the church from its current malaise. This is hopelessness in action, also known as magical thinking. It bears very little resemblance to the resurrection faith that erupted among the disciples after Jesus’ death. It’s not the only story or the whole story but it is getting louder.
The other story is deeply mysterious, frequently unexpected, much more encouraging and heartening. The willingness of the church in this Synod to embrace the Future Directions vision of a contemporary, courageous, growing church has often struck me as simply ‘crazy brave’ in the increasing chaos of our despairing world and (numerically) declining church. ‘Crazy brave’ might even be a useful synonym for ‘faithfulness’ in our time.
The times we’re living in are the times in which we’re called to be church. The whole of Scripture is a varied reflection on living in challenging times from the perspective of those who witnessed those times considered in the light of relationship with the God of the promise fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
At any time in the long sweep of the biblical story and the church’s witness there were leaders noticing that worship attendance was falling, young people were disappearing, older people were fixated on their memories of better days and lamenting all the signs of a surrender to the values of an alien culture and the seductions of alien gods. Throughout that history, there are witnesses speaking with passionate urgency to the faithful, the people of God – an urgency that probably included desperation and fear, but which is born out of – what must often seem like – an impossible, irrational hope.
For all these faithful souls, the present reality is unacceptable – a terrible contradiction of everything they believed about God; present circumstances don’t reflect the promises of God who has been present with, responsive to, in covenant with a particular people. The future, therefore, must be different; the future must reflect that relationship and the covenant even when it seems impossible, even in the face of infectious despair.
There’s a thing I’ve learnt more sharply through the particular/peculiar ministry of General Secretary – what I’ve learnt is that, in those moments when you’re confronted with a situation or circumstances for which a constructive, hopeful resolution seems humanly impossible (and there are a few of those), there is something that doesn’t let you just crawl under a rock and hide, there is something that makes you keep turning up. That something is God’s hope – individual disciples and the church are held in relationship with the God of the promise by hope. Even in exile, even in decline, the biblical God – speaking through the prophets and through Jesus – expects, demands that something new occur - and calls, cajoles, exhorts, impels random, frequently reluctant, always ill-equipped people into that work. I guess what I’m saying is that hope is God’s hope and it doesn’t let you go.
Once you’ve signed up for this – called, baptised, ordained, inducted, commissioned (whatever) – God’s hope will have you and it won’t let you go until God’s purposes are brought to fruition. Have a very hopeful Advent season, a blessed Christmas, and a hope-filled 2024.
Rev. Jane Fry, General Secretary