So, if the changes I have identified are real and are important, what might these changes mean for our way of doing church in the future?
There is no program that can be implemented by every church that can guarantee to enable any church to thrive in the world today. One-size-fits-all programs are anathema at a time when we are increasingly and appropriately sensitive to the importance of paying careful attention to the particularities of the context in which we are attempting to be church.
What we may be able to articulate are certain attitudes that may encourage the development of a church culture in which sensitive and effective ministry becomes more likely as a by-product of developing these attitudes.
1. Welcome. Church must work hard at saying to people “You are welcome here just as you are.” The days are over when the church could afford to think it was appropriate to demand that, in order to belong, everyone must sign on to precisely the program proposed by the church.
People are at different places in their understanding of faith. Whether we like it or not they will pick the parts of our system that work for them, and reject those parts they find less helpful or that just do not fit with their experience of life. The current practice of birth control among many Roman Catholics today is an obvious illustration of the fact that church hierarchies can say whatever they like and people will continue to make the choices they find congruent with their life realities. This has probably always been true; but now we need to be honest about the fundamentally personal nature of the faith choices people make and the beliefs they hold.
It is important for the church to be clear about its identity. We do hold to certain sacred texts and particular corporate practices and traditions. We believe there are ways to more authentically embody our true nature as human beings and we aim to support all people in living more fully in tune with the image of God in which we are all created. But, we want all people to know that, regardless of where they locate themselves in relationship to our core beliefs, values and practices, they are absolutely and unconditionally welcome among us.
2. Respect. While Christian faith does have a prophetic role to play in our culture, this role can only effectively be fulfilled if it is done in a context of genuine respect for all people. We can only be a truly prophetic witness from deep within the context of peoples’ lives. We need to start by listening carefully. We must enter sensitively into the realities of peoples’ lives. Standing on the sidelines and lobbing drone missiles into the enemy camp, is not an effective way of living the love which Jesus embodied.
In order to be able to listen sensitively we must we willing to put aside our agendas and demands. The church does not exist to get people into church or to cause peoples’ lives to all conform to a precise pattern of shared behaviour. Our only agenda is to live in response to the loving Spirit of God at work in our lives and in the world around us. We seek to discern where God’s Spirit seems to be authentically at work and then do all we can to support that work.
The days of arrogance in the church need to end. The culture in which we presently operate is looking for gentleness, authenticity, and respect for our shared humanity. We are one human community. We must find ways to raise up those things that connect us with the world community before we will have any credibility to critique the flaws we see in the world. We have a sorry past to live down and a shameful legacy to correct before we can have any hope of forming a genuine bond with the people for whom church is perceived as foreign, even hostile, territory. Starting with gentleness and respect will certainly help.