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It has been a turbulent time for churches these past few years. The impact of a global pandemic is still being felt even as we have long emerged from restrictions. The weight of the psychological damage is only now beginning to surface. These challenging times for churches has been set against the backdrop of a gradual decline in church attendance over many decades and across most denominations.
Many have been wrestling with what this means for the church in the west. It is certainly something I have given much thought to in the past few years.
Into the confusion and negative headlines comes what I think is a really helpful picture of church in this season. It all began with a friend messaging me to ask for my address! They had a book they wanted to send me. With intrigue I awaited it’s arrival.
Eventually through my letter box came ‘Rewilding the Church’ by Steve Aisthorpe*. Steve is a Mission Development Worker at the Church of Scotland and his insights in this book are very pertinent for our time. The books timely release in 2020 has provided a fascinating image for us.
The central extended metaphor throughout the book is borrowed from ecology. The term ‘Rewilding’ is used to describe conservation efforts to try and restore an area of land to its natural uncultivated state. It involves allowing natural processes to take hold and sometimes involves the removal of invasive species or the reintroduction of key species of plant or animal.
The stories that hit the headlines are often about reintroducing long lost species like wolves or endangered rare birds.
Controversies aside the basic idea is that by letting nature take hold we will end up with much greater biodiversity and push back against the damage that over farming and management can cause. There have been some great successes in this rewilding effort across the globe.
Whilst this is a fascinating part of the puzzle when it comes to the state of our planet what in particular is interesting about this picture is how it applies to the church in this season.
A Wild Church
The institutions of church are being challenged in our time. Steve proposes that in this season what the church should do is not look to the next clever management strategy or technical solution but instead return back to what has made faith thrive in the past. This is not a new kind of church being birthed but rather a return to a wilder, more organic, less managed church. Something that has always existed in various forms. The call is not simply to ditch all our denominations and structures but rather look to the raw forces that have always causes the church to thrive. A return to the foundations of our faith and a letting go of our need to manage people and structures. Rather than try and protect or save what we have it’s more important that we rediscover a wilder and more natural form of church. This will involve letting go of the things that hold us back.
At times I got lost in the books details but I remained hooked by the central theme.
Many speak of the church today being in the post-Christendom age. That is to say that we have moved beyond a world where Christianity and politics go hand in hand to shape our world at a geopolitical level. Whilst many mourn the loss of a Christian voice of influence in the halls of power, others rejoice at the opportunity to shake off the shackles of power and get back to a more Jesus shaped model for faith. It is hard to deny that Christianity has always thrived on the margins and it’s greatest failures tend to be associated with the love of power.
In a post-Christendom world a more organic church with a passion for Jesus seems to be exactly what we need. Our western minds often run to structures and programs as our saviour in times of challenge. Structures are vital to growth but they must always be secondary. You build the structure to maintain the growth not to artificially try and create growth. Much of what we call church can sadly exist to serve the existing structures. When the call is to expand the Kingdom and see heaven on earth we can be guilty of settling for well organised meetings.
Steve manages to steer clear of prescribing structure but rather encourages a conversation about values, reaching people with good news and being genuinely Spirit led in our pursuit of a healthy church culture.
In this season I’ve been sensing this same pull back to the foundations – the heart beat of God’s people. The organic, Spirit empowered Church in all it’s flavours and shapes and sizes. A people who don’t trust in structures alone but in God and in the people he gathers. A church where all are valued and released to be church, not just the few leaders. A church that is not stamped out by persecution because it’s resilient and organic, not centralised and brittle. A church that moves in simple obedience and breathtaking power. A church of disciples, not just congregants. A wilder church perhaps.
Like any metaphor it’s possible to stretch it too far but for me the term “Rewilding” captures well what I sense God is call his church to in this cultural moment.
What do you think?
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