The purpose of the Church is not to increase its own membership, irrespective of the obsession some Christians seem to have about church growth. The purpose of the Church is to extend the love of God – whatever that means. In less religious terms, this is to say we are to recognise that a healthy society is one permeated by compassion, fairness, kindness and cooperation.
It is a world where people are supported by others at times of vulnerability, uncertainty and loss. Where there is a more equal distribution of human and natural resources and a deep respect for the carrying capacity of the planet. A life where humans do not suffer from hunger or poverty or oppression – but have a full opportunity to grow into the more complete people we might become.
To return to faith language, it is to build the ‘Reign’ or ‘Kingdom of God’ (in Hebrew – Issa-ra-el) in our midst, recognising the innate goodness of all humanity and its ability to heal brokenness and support those who are broken. But this is not to do with any afterlife or heavenly pretension. This is the biblical call to find and share the love of the divine with one another in our common life together in the here and now.
This vision of wholeness is at the heart of the earliest church tradition –inclusive, welcoming, creative and ecological. Yet this is so easily lost in the institutional workings of congregations, buildings and finance. Rather than being ‘a church for others’, if we are not care-full we end up with a church existing for itself – the consequences of which can only be further decline and death.
Maybe this kind of church just has to die. Can it really be so self-centred and have a role in the contemporary culture of greed, hubris and narcissism?
However, it is perhaps precisely in being counter-cultural that it could have a future. The demise of the institution could bring the re-birth of the community.
We may live in ‘Mission Communities’ where the emphasis is on ‘mission’, but it is time now to rediscover community!
In spite of the rhetoric of neo-liberal politicians and others who say the community is nothing more than a collection of happy individuals, our faith tradition claims that it is the very relations between these people that constitutes whether we live in a loving world or a care-less one.
As with many faith traditions, Christianity does not affirm consumeristic individualism. What it does recognise is the need we all have to relate positively to the world around us, and that we can only do this through the company of others (directly or indirectly). It is not good for one to be alone; we can only grow in our humanity through the love of the wider community, family, friendships and companionships.
This is Creationtide (1 Sept – 4 October) – the time of the year when we can especially focus on our relationship with God as Creator, with the Earth, with other creatures and with those around us. That is an immense chance to extend God’s love and recognise Grace in unexpected places.
We cannot love ourselves – only by loving other people and other places, who then return that love to us. There is no such thing as an individual, only people in relationships. God’s judgement is ultimately about the importance we give to reciprocity, mutual support and the integrity of all life on Earth…
All best wishes for this special Season – Martyn