Church: what time is it? (Rich Tweedy)

Monday, 23 December, 2013

Rich Tweedy asks what time it is.

Pioneer ministers are restless people.

There's a driving sense of urgency that we need radical ways of doing and being church – and that if we miss the immediacy of this challenge, the church will die. At the same time there's a frustration that other people just aren't getting it. I've learned that one of the first tasks of pioneers, therefore, is to enable others to see the urgency in such a way as to recognise how to respond to it.

I'm working as a curate in a group of churches in rural west Worcestershire, which is led by the effervescent David Sherwin. It is growing a remarkable blend of both traditional and radical forms of church. We face similar issues to many rural churches: traditional Sunday services attracting 10 people, mostly aged over 60, where three decades ago there would have been 40 people of all ages.

It's not hard for a traditional church stalwart to see that there's a problem here. The issue is to understand why it has occurred - and only then can new forms of church be considered. For this, it is important to explain what time it is. I have had to go on a 'journey' myself in order to be able to recognise and answer that question.

I originally trained as an astronomer. Thus, when some years later I joined a large and inspirational New Wine church in Cheltenham, I was perplexed by one recurring theme: that we live in a post-modern culture and need to engage with it. My science training makes me realise there are certain incontrovertible facts: the earth goes round the Sun, the speed of light is constant, entropy always increases; I'm therefore not very receptive to post-modern denials of objective reality. However, there came a point when I realised that it doesn't matter what I think of the philosophy itself, the fact is that the culture has changed from the one I was trained in, and 'post-modern' is a meaningful and accurate description of this new culture.

I then realised that if the gospel is to be communicated in the 21st century, it has to be done in ways that are meaningful to people living in a post-modern world – not in ways that I personally feel more comfortable with.

This journey helps me to couch the urgency of the present in terms that regular churchgoers seem to find helpful. I find myself saying, 'You and I were born and brought up in the modern era, within Christendom. However, we now live in a very different world, which is post-modern and post-Christendom. Therefore, what worked 30 years ago doesn't work now. This isn't your fault: it's a symptom of the culture around us changing so rapidly.'

Pioneer ministers will know that the post-modern world opens new opportunities; we recognise that people are keen for authenticity; more open to spirituality, and desire genuine relationships. Thus our job is to enable established churchgoers to recognise and embrace these opportunities. Explaining the obvious problem of declining congregations in terms of the cultural changes points the way to how a fresh expression of church might be an effective response – and this means more people buy into the vision.

In west Worcestershire we've therefore had some success with a Sunday morning café church in two of the villages because it's high on relationship and low on religious structure. It's vital that it's welcoming to those who would rarely step inside a church and that it's family-friendly – but it's also an opportunity for elderly stalwarts to get out of the house, meet people and have a chat. It's still early days and we're constantly learning and growing but it is an exciting journey to be on.

  • Some readers may recognise 'what time is it?' as one of the worldview questions advocated by NT Wright in books like The New Testament and the People of God. The other questions are 'Who are we?', 'Where are we?', 'What's the problem?' and 'What's the solution?' Each of these might usefully be asked in most church contexts.
About the author: 

Rich Tweedy is Curate at Martley, Wichenford and the Lower Teme Valley, Worcestershire.


Dear Mr Tweedy

[I don't know you well enough to use your Christian name yet. Besides 'Rich' reminds me of a quote from Revelation: 'I am rich and have need of nothing' though I trust you would make no such claim? ]

Having visited Network Church I was reminded of the first church I attended back in the 1980's: St Andrews Church in Chorleywood - also a charismatic Anglican Church - where I was healed of ankylosing spondylitis. That was before it was invaded by false prophets from the United States.

In the thirty-odd years since then we [I have a wife, Linda, who has not been healed of MS - truly the Lord is sovereign and not bound by heretical word-of-faith doctrine] have attended a variety of churches from hyper-charismatic to safe-traditional. The common denominator with all of them was the lack of true fellowship. Individualism - the spirit of the so-called Post Modern Age - has contributed to the disintegration of communities such as the extended family which is what the church was intended to be, according to the book of Acts.

Koinonia - the Greek word embracing truly integrated fellowship speaking the truth in love was intended to be the environment in which the sanctifying of believers is accelerated and which holds up to unbelievers a model of familial love unattainable without faith in the God of love and a willingness to die daily.

There's the rub - it's much more comfortable to retain our selfish individualism while engaging in part time religious rituals - charismatic or otherwise or devising new programmes to make church relevant. Koinonia is always relevant in any age. But it doesn't come cheap and even the world is not fooled by its counterfeits.

Don't be discouraged. Didn't the Lord promise that the church that He builds will be indestructable? And that everything else is wood, hay and stubble? It's all a matter of discerning which is which. Amen?

From a brother in Christ with love

Dear MichaelH,

Very many thanks for your comments - sorry for the slow reply, I did not check the page for a couple of weeks.

You're absolutely right to emphasise the importance of koinonia, and that it doesn't come cheap - and you are also right to stress the role of sanctification in that. I think it is an essential part of this kind of fellowship that those who aren't believers are also welcomed in and enabled to feel that they, too, can be part of this community, so that they are able to experience something of what it is like to be part of Christ's family.

So glad that you were healed of ankylosing spondylitis.


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