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Thinking big!

Has the Church deviated from the original model?

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Here’s a statement I never thought I would make: there’s something we can learn from our secular Government. It’s called Big Society. Of course, it’s just a grand scheme and probably will never actually work in reality, but it makes some good points.

  • Empowering individuals and communities – decentralising power from central government.
  • Encouraging social responsibility – these small groups to act in their community.
  • Creating an enabling and accountable state – flexibility in how the whole thing works.

What would happen if the Church in this country took heed of this? Big Church – though, contrariwise, Small Church would be a better name for it.

Of course we have already read how the Church of the original apostles was a Small Church. Those first Christians met in each other’s houses for fellowship and mutual encouragement and instruction, which empowered them to reach out into their community, whether in the temple and synagogue or in the market squares and public meeting places. Government of these assemblies of “called out ones” was through an informal system of elders, selected from within their number, aided by those itinerant apostles, drawn from the close confidants of Jesus himself (with notable additions, such as Paul). So, if we had to define the Small Church of the first Christians, we would get the following:

  • Empowering individual churches.
  • Encouraging evangelism and social action for individual churches.
  • Creating an environment for individual churches to operate without interference.

Of course many modern churches already operate under this principle, notably the house churches and the smaller independent evangelical churches, but they are far from being the norm. Today’s Church as a whole, both as a product of historical processes and as a reflection of today’s society, still likes to “think big”.

That rag-tag group of around 120 ordinary folk on that awesome Day of Pentecost has morphed into a worldwide network of vast ecclesiastical corporations.

The Roman Catholic Church has over a billion members, 2795 branch offices (dioceses), over 400,000 managers (priests), controlled by a CEO (Pope) and a board of directors (Council of Cardinals). In 1994 it had an annual profit of $4 million, with $200 billion in cash deposits and several billion dollars worth of solid gold and other treasures in the Vatican vaults.

It takes just over £1 billion a year to run the Church of England, financing 13,000 parishes and 43 cathedrals. Around 15% of this comes from its financial assets, which amounted to £4.4 billion in 2008.

The Methodist Church finance division has a mission statement that offers practical solutions which combine Christian ethics and investment returns. This is not an attack on them, as I’m sure there are not many finance houses that have mission statements that offer Christian ethics as a foundational principle, but I wonder what John Wesley would think about a denomination growing from his efforts boasting £336 million of assets and that can offer a 42.8% return from its UK Equity Fund?

Like any corporation, these huge edifices seem mainly to exist to serve their own assets – welfare of staff, management of funds, investments and properties and maintenance of public relations to protect the brand name. So here are just three of the main denominations in the UK, all sitting on a lot of cash. How can we respond to this? With cynicism, anger or sorrow? Possibly all three. One question we should ask is whether this is all money well spent, in terms of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and what the Church is meant to be doing in the 21st Century.

The Church of England has seen a steady decline in Church attendance, running at around the million mark every week. The Catholic Church has also seen numbers drop, particularly in the ten years since 1996, but it has steadied itself since. The Methodists are in freefall with around a 10% drop every year in active churches.

So does that tell us that the Church in the UK is in terminal decline? It suits the secularists to believe so, who look just at the Catholics and Anglicans as barometers of the spiritual climate. Our media, too, when looking for Christian commentary or responses, tend to nab the nearest dog-collar, or, if particularly well connected, will grab some words from a bishop or even archbishop. It’s sound-bytes they want, not commentary, so where better to go than to the media-trained apologists for liberal State Christianity?

For the next article in this series, click here.

For the previous article in this series, click here.

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