For once, I was right...

I was chatting to a senior church leader and he told me that his wife had mentioned to a pupil in her music class that she had gone to church the previous Sunday. Then he continued, “So, tell me Rob, what do you think the child said because no one’s come up with the right answer yet.” My reputation was clearly on the line, so I gave it a little thought before replying ‘What is church?’ and to my obvious delight he informed me that I had ‘got it in one’.

I wasn’t surprised by that child’s response though. It’s to be expected given our post Christian culture. This is why my wife and I are totally committed to reaching out to a generation that is in danger of growing up knowing little or nothing of the world’s greatest love story. 

So, what is church?  If I was talking to youngsters, I think I would tell them that the church is not a building. It’s a group of people who have asked Jesus to be their best friend and want to make Him happy.

When talking to adults though I often refer to the church as a ‘colony of heaven’. I can’t claim copyright though, the apostle Paul used this kind of imagery when he wrote his letter to his friends in a Roman colony known Philippi.  

Paul knew that they were proud of their status, and would be trying their best to be good Roman citizens, but he lived his life on the premise that the church has a different king: Jesus. As one New Testament scholar has said, Paul was not offering people a religious experience he was ‘establishing cells of people loyal to this new king’, the king whose birth has just been celebrated so widely.

As I see it this loyalty should be seen in two complementary ways: lifestyle and evangelism. Sadly, the church’s behaviour often undermines the credibility of its message which is why it would be good if those of us who claim to be Christians would begin 2024 with a renewed dedication to work at our differences and to care for one another in the way Jesus did.

We could view the new year as a fresh opportunity to share our story too encouraged by the fact that one recent writer has suggested that we seem to be witnessing a surprising rebirth of belief in God! But we obviously need to share our faith in ways that resonate with our changed culture. As Justin Brierly says ‘Young people are often uninterested in the question ‘Does God exist?’ but are often fiercely invested in issues around justice and equality. We need to start there and point them to the ways in which only Christianity can make sense of that moral instinct and the stories they are telling themselves’.

But let’s not fool ourselves either. A renewed, reinvigorated church will probably encounter more than a little opposition as it seeks to engage with our post Christian culture and its current values. Sexuality and abortion are but two issues that spring to mind immediately.

But if we do, it might be worth remembering what Dr Martin Luther King said in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’. ‘There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society’.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the churches of Wales acted more like thermostats than thermometers in 2024? Just imagine what that would mean for us as a nation.