Is the decline of the church inevitable? Philip North, Bishop of Burnley, suggests instead that inevitable renewal will start on the margins.
At the start of Jesus’ ministry, in Luke 4, he stands up in the synagogue and quotes Isaiah 61. ‘I have come to proclaim good news to the poor,’ he says – and if we read on in Isaiah we read about those who will ‘rebuild the ruined walls’ and ‘restore the shattered cities.’ Who are they? I believe it’s the poor of this world – not the rich – who will bring about the restoration Jesus is talking about.
Renewal will come from the margins and from the broken, abandoned places that people want to forget. As I scour through the pages of church history, I cannot find a single renewal movement that has not begun amongst the poor. There simply isn’t one.
But look at where St Francis began in the 11th century. Look at the Acts of the Apostles – where did they begin? Look at Wesley, look at Newman – they went to the forgotten, marginalised areas.
So how do we achieve it?
Jesus spent his life with marginalised women, voiceless children, publicans, tax collectors, the crippled, the lame, the poor, the forgotten and the oppressed. And from there he started a movement which utterly transformed what it means to be human.
We’ll worry about belonging first and belief will follow
It’s crucial that we don’t spiritualise the word ‘poor.’ It means the poor – and we don’t get to escape by changing it to mean perhaps spiritual or emotional poverty.
You see, when we start with the poor, the rich will catch on. It works that way round, regardless of what the world tells you.
Look at the music people listen to. Look at the clothes they wear. Look at our architecture. Look at sport. Look at political ideas. They all emerge from poorer communities and then the rich catch on. And what’s true of our cultural life is true also of our faith. We don’t need a strong urban church just to have a strong urban church. We need a strong urban church in order to renew the whole church, in order to renew a nation.
What would a church be like that left the poor behind? It would be financially viable, but it would not be the church of Jesus Christ. It would be a smug Christian support group.
The revolution that starts in the urban church won’t stop there. It’s about the whole church.
It’s not about a cookie-cutter strategy, but I think our revolution will feature four things.
Firstly, it’ll be about belonging before it’s about belief. We’ll build communities that are invitational, relational and with a strong ability to listen. We’ll worry about belonging first and belief will follow.
Secondly, we’ll see local leaders raised up where we might least expect them. Jesus took an unlikely packed lunch in John 6 and fed five thousand: when it seems like there isn’t enough, God makes it enough. Local leaders who understand their community and who speak their language are at the heart of our revolution.
Thirdly, we’ll share the gospel with simplicity and clarity and we’ll expect people to respond to it. Our local leaders will put it into words that people understand. They’ll invite people to real community and be clear about the hope that they carry.
And finally, we’ll marry proclamation and service. Often we can focus on one or the other, either delivering huge evangelistic initiatives or doing great social work. But unless we can do both together, we’ve missed the point. To proclaim without serving is empty hypocrisy. To serve without proclaiming means that we’re subjecting people to the greatest deprivation of all, which is to be deprived of hearing the saving news of God in Jesus Christ.
Without prayer we are as much use to God as an ashtray on a motorbike. The communities we form must be rooted in prayer. Not just spontaneous prayer, when it feels good. People often say to me, ‘My life is prayer. I’m always praying. I see a lovely tree and I pray. I pray when I’m driving…’ How can you pray when you’re driving?! I once tried to pray while I was driving and I nearly crashed the minibus and nearly killed eight people.
Without prayer we are as much use to God as an ashtray on a motorbike
There has to be a discipline to our prayer, time set aside to it, routines that are established and that we are accountable for. If you’re involved in urban ministry there will be times when it is incredibly tough. There’ll be times when your plans fall flat. Only prayer can give you that courage and determination to keep going. Walk the streets, pray the streets. Be seen praying in your communities. Without the fuel of prayer, it’ll come to nothing.
When I was at theological college – which I hated every second of – I learnt a lot about heresy. We learnt about Arianism and modalism and Gnosticism and Pelagianism and Donatism. What we didn’t learn is the heresy that is most prevalent in western Europe today.
It’s the belief that the decline of Christianity in western Europe is inevitable, and that all we can do is ensure that the body is perfectly arranged in the coffin.
Look around the world – it’s an age of faith. People are giving their lives to Jesus in unprecedented numbers. Yet in our strange cultural bubble we’ve bought into the lie that church decline is inevitable.
But it’s not. Renewal is inevitable. Because Jesus is Lord. That’s the one objective truth.
Do you know from where renewal will come? It will come from the margins, from the edges, from the forgotten places.
We need a revolution. You are the revolutionaries. Let’s go and start.
This is an edited version of Bishop Philip’s talk to delegates at Proximity 2018. Listen to his full message on the Message Podcast – subscribe at message.org.uk/podcast