Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What’s the best way of learning from our history?

For those of you who access my church magazine piece via this blog, here is this month's. It's a reflection on history as a spur to mission in the present (I think):

‘History is bunk,’ said someone, while Shakespeare said that it ‘is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ someone else, however, observed ‘those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Who to believe, hey?!

Anniversaries are a time to look back and take stock. Sometimes they are an excuse to wallow in nostalgia since we feel that the good old days were so much better than now. Equally often we write the past off, assuming that it has nothing to tell a world that’s changed out of all recognition; the present is all that matters, the future calls us on.

Christians value history. Our faith is rooted in it. It’s not just that there have been Christians in every generation for two thousand years. It’s that our faith stands or falls on its historical roots: either Jesus lived or he did not; either he rose from the dead or he did not. Negative answers to these questions mean that history renders our faith worthless, as Paul told the Corinthians.

Evangelicals tend to play fast and loose with history. We pick the bits of our past that we approve of or which bring us greatest comfort, preferring to skirt around those episodes that we find embarrassing or out of keeping with our theological preferences. So we’re big fans of Luther and Wesley, Spurgeon and John Stott, but not so keen on the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Oxford Movement or the Honest to God debates of 50 years ago.

As the current education secretary is finding out, history comes weighed down with ideological baggage. The past is another country whose terrain we struggle to navigate and we’re unsure which maps on offer we should trust.

So, what about our past? Those of us who’ve been members of Park Road for a long time – and some can trace their arrival here back before the second world war – will have a particular view of our past. It will be a view that is replete with memories of friends, of significant moments in the development of our faith, of struggles shared and victories won. For those of us who have recently arrived, the past might be interesting but it is a tad inconsequential since it has had no role in shaping our lives or experience.

But history is more than just a personal story, a collection of events that we have been involved in. Our church has lived through countless wars, recessions, booms and crises of various kinds. This community has been witness to the growth of Bromley from a small market town ten miles from London Bridge to London’s largest borough; it has seen changes in the economic and ethnic composition of the neighbourhood; and it can tell stories of how ministries and groups have come and gone in response to such changes. And that makes our history worth recalling and repeating; the stories of how God has led individuals and the whole church through times of challenge and joy bear close inspection (something that is possible through the people’s history of the church).

But these are only worth recalling if they act as a spur to our reflections on what God is calling us to be in the here and now. The trouble with church history is that it’s not a particularly good predictor of the church’s future. And the current crop of statistics from the 2011 census and other surveys make for gloomy reading. The number of people who identify themselves as Christians is falling (somewhere in the mid-50s%, down from 75%+ only a decade ago), barely 10% of our neighbours are in church on a Sunday, and of those, barely 10% are under 40. You don’t have to be a mathematician to work out that the future is not that rosy! 

As we celebrate our 150th birthday and look back over the years of God’s goodness and faithfulness to us as a people, what do we notice that might help us face the coming years with faith and fortitude? My feeling is that the church is at its best when it takes God at his word and speaks the language of the streets. Spurgeon always recommended praying with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. It’s good advice.

As we have been burrowing into God’s word through the Community Bible Experience, we have been caught up afresh in the story of God’s love affair with creation, his desire to undo all that human sin has done and make all things new. Beginning with Jesus, working out through us to the ends of the world, God’s mission is to bring everything back into its proper relationship with him. So, how are our lives and our church programme being shaped by that story? 

What about the world in which we are seeking to be a missional presence? Stories in the press and stories we hear over the garden fence constantly remind us of the brokenness and despair of so many in our apparently go-ahead society. People struggling to make ends meet, struggling with addictions, struggling with crumbling relationships; people who seem outwardly to have it all together, inwardly crying out for someone to care; people who have reached the end of their ability to cope without support wondering where to turn in a world of cuts, closing services and failing friendships.

We have been at our best in the past when we have taken God at his word and thrown ourselves into this world of pain with the good news of Jesus; we have been most like the church that Jesus envisaged when we have sought the power of his Holy Spirit to be the presence of his healing power, grace and challenge among our neighbours.

This is what we have aspired to over the past 150 years, let’s use our celebration this year to renew that aspiration and launch ourselves into creative mission that helps our neighbours to see and experience Jesus. Are we up for that?

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