Thursday, 23 November 2017

Walking the Way - a reason for hope?

I posted this on Facebook:
In all the years of being involved in the URC, the emerging "Walking the Way" culture shift for the denomination is the first time ever that we have actually felt
*excited* about something that is happening in the URC. It won't be quick.
And it'll require perseverance and a willing attitude. But here *is* a genuine hope, and the key thing is the Kingdom of God.

So what is it and why am I positive about it?

First, an admission.  In more than 25 years as a URC minister, this is the first time I have felt truly positive about the significance of something that has emerged from the core leadership within the denomination. That's a quarter century of disillusionment, frustration, tears, isolation and a host of similar negative feelings.

And second, I do not think 'Walking the Way' is the 'magic' cure for the ills of URC.  Medicine can only be effective if it is actually taken, and I suspect there will be many individuals and congregations who - perhaps through apathy, pride or cynicism - just don't bother with it.

But 'Walking the Way' is born out of realism.

A decade ago the URC launched the 'Vision 4 Life' program - a three year emphasis on the Bible, Prayer and Evangelism. This was probably the only other time when I have had any positive hopes, and GEAR helped run workshops for local churches to explore the topics further. But despite the unprecedented high level of engagement with the themes of Bible and Prayer, there was a massively underwhelming interest in evangelism.

Some years later the URC invested a lot of money and manpower into a controversial and abortive marketing campaign, known as ZI (short for 'Zero Intolerance') was scrapped before being launched. For a while I was part of the planning process until, ironically, it was made plain that my theological convictions were not going to be tolerated.

In the aftermath came an attempt to put evangelism firmly on the agenda of the denomination, but even that proved controversial, with massive disagreements about the subject within the URC.  As frustration increased, and alluding to the NHS 'Couch to 5K' good health emphasis, one speaker described the URC as "pre-couch".

The URC clearly has a problem about evangelism. But this is merely a symptom of a much more fundamental problem: the URC has a problem about the gospel itself.

This was illustrated in a frighteningly profound way during one workshop that I ran for a group of churches, when one of the Elders (yes, an Elder) said:
"I don't have a personal relationship with Jesus. I don't believe in God."

Of course, that's an extreme example, and I don't for a moment believe it is typical!  But I do believe that there's a broad and general lack of confidence in the gospel itself; that there's a lot of unease about talking about one's personal faith; and that there's widespread paucity of personal relationship with Jesus.  This is the reality that we face as a denomination, and is a significant factor in our numerical decline (ie: there are few new Christians, because there is no confidence to share the gospel, because this faith is not personal.)

The more I hear about 'Walking the Way'...

...the more hopeful I am that it can begin to address this problem, because it begins by recognising that there actually is a problem.  Fundamentally, it is about changing the culture within the URC into one of biblical discipleship - an increasingly Jesus-centred faith which is lived-out and talked about.  It's not rocket science.  It's about restoring a seedling that has been neglected and buried, nurturing it to life and health and fruitfulness.

Moreover, it's not a program.  It's not a small package of tasks which can be checked off the list ("Done that. Got the T-shirt") before lapsing back to old habits and priorities.  It's about a renewed way of living, being citizens of the Kingdom of God who have an ongoing, deepening and vital relationship with the King himself.  The URC expresses it like this:

"Walking the Way explores what it means to actively follow and learn from – and to be eventually transformed by – Christ."

One of my reasons for hope is that the URC is actually looking outside itself for help.  A denomination in such significant decline can hardly pretend that it has the expertise and experience to cure itself, even though there are notable exceptions where growth is occurring.  But help is being sought from some significant areas.  The ones that I am aware of at the moment are:

The LICC (London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, founded by John Stott) is on board to help us with approaches for developing whole-life discipleship.

Methodist Minister Andrew Roberts' book 'Holy Habits' is being adopted, together with study guides prepared via BRF (Bible Reading Fellowship), as a resource for developing life-transforming practices that characterised the early church in Acts 2. It's not about a quick book study, but about becoming immersed in habits (dare I say "spiritual disciplines"?) which sustain and enrich our ongoing relationship with Jesus.

Time will tell.

I do now live in genuine hope.  I don't expect miracles (which is probably a sad lack of faith) and do think there will be many local congregations who manage to avoid being affected. But at last here is something that has the potential to effect a transformation for good.

Yes, I fear that pride may cause some to despise this.  And, yes, I realise that this is nothing more than simply trying to get the denomination back to basic Christian discipleship ...there is so much more that also needs to be part of the picture.  But it is right, good, and a remedy for our ills.

I just hope that many will take the medicine!

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