Gamaliel and “the decline of the Church”


I just picked up this book review from @PeterRollins‘s Twitter feed.

If you don’t know Pete Rollins he is part of the Emerging Church movement and hails from Belfast and likes to put the cat of controversy among the pigeons of complacency. He picked up on the following quote from Gladys Ganiel’s review and quoted it, which piqued my interest:-

“As I read the book I couldn’t help thinking of the American Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who once said something to the effect:

‘The church in the West isn’t dying, God is killing it.’

Hauerwas’ remark casts ‘secularization’ and Christianity in the West in quite a different spiritual light than they are usually seen.”

I don’t entirely agree with it, “God is transforming it” would be more accurate I think.

Ever since I was small there has been angst in the churches I have been in about the declining influence of the Church, falling Church numbers and so on. I was always aware that I was sharing my worship with those who didn’t actually believe, or who were there for the social aspect or who professed to believe but were far more interested in themselves. And gradually I saw the church congregations getting smaller as society changed and people felt comfortable with expressing their true spirituality, outside the Church.

But this has never really bothered me. I picked up something when I was small from my father, namely the words of Gamaliel in Act:

” if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” Acts 38 – 39

In essence, what God wants is what will happen and you’d better remember that all our buildings and structures and even our rituals and our hymns and prayers, our actions for justice and freedom and equality, everything we do is subject to God. And the thing is, he’s God, not us so what he wants for us not what we want will be what happens in the end.

Church is not about numbers. If all the people who didn’t really believe have left what do you have? The kernel of something amazing and powerful. The people who actually want to be a part of it.

The Church is a part of society and reflection of it. It will therefore mirror societal trends as new generations arrive and begin to make the world their own. It’s very interesting talking to my godfather who is  Mason. His lodge is experiencing exactly the same thing, a dwindling member base, a lack of enthusiasm for organised activity. It’s exactly the same problem or think of the problem with getting people to be volunteers or Brown Owls.

Perhaps the Church should stop navel gazing and realise it’s part of wider societal change where connections are being forged in different ways – like via mobile phones, distributed familes that can travel to see each other, friendship groups vs location based affinity groups,  online social networks anyone?

This is not to say that all organised religion is on the way out. People need and respond to th eplay of rituals to express the play of communal identity, to understand the world and our place in, and particuarly in relation to God. Emerging Church is no different, it’s just that the ritual is different every time, but there’s still the play of and with ritual.

It can be very worrying to see institutions you love changing, humans love continuity and fear change. Don’t fear this time of change,

” ..if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

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