The Problem of Professionalism and the local church

I blogged last week about a few trends that affect us as a church in the UK; consumerism, individualism, entertainment and the peculiarly Christian Conference-ism.  But there’s another one I think is worth us thinking though because it has a huge impact on us as churches across the UK.

Professionalism.  Professionalism has led many of us to divide life up.  It creates a secular sacred divide.  A sense that I am one thing – professional – in my workplace and another in the rest of life.  There are clear and obvious problems there for us as Christians who are called to be transformed in our thinking, to view the whole of life as under Christ with no areas exempt from his call and service.  It also creates a ready excuse not to evangelise, or if you are the boss to preclude anyone from evangelising in the workplace.  Professionalism becomes a mode of living.

But I wonder if there is a slightly more nefarious impact of professionalism.  It leads us to divorce our work life geographically from our home life.  So we tend to commute to work.  According to the last national census the average commute time is 54 minutes, and there is evidence that this has continued to rise with the average commute now being over an hour.  I think much of that is to do with professionalism, we no longer want to live and work in the same community.

And there are obvious negative impacts of this.  For a start, an hour commute there and back every day equates to 10 hours commuting a week,  that’s over 40 hours a month (Or a whole week at work).  That’s over 450 hours a year once you take off holidays.  That is a huge chunk of time.  Time which is lost.

But it also means we are isolating ourselves when it comes to church.  If my work is an hour away how will I invite my colleagues to come to church with me or join me at an event?  And that time and distance becomes an obvious barrier to cultivating gospel capable friendships.  It leads too many communities to essentially be commuter communities.  Communities in geography only where people are present only in an evening, exhausted, and at weekends when they are busily fraught doing all the things they haven’t had time to do all the rest of the week, or commuting to events or to visit family.

As a pastor my contract stipulates that I live within a relatively small radius of the church building.  I am expected to live and work within the community that I serve.  But I wonder if pastors are the only ones we expect this of?  How would it transform your church if everyone lived within the community in which you serve?  And what does it say about your church if no one lives within the geographical location in which you meet on Sunday?

Professionalism has subtly influenced church as it has created commuter culture.  I wonder how much the commuter mindset has influenced our thinking in terms of journey times to work.  How much more easily we’re prepared to commute to a bigger church because we’re used to commuting and think nothing of it?  But I also wonder how much this keeps church at an emotional and spiritual distance due to geographical distance.  Providing a ready made reason to do ‘community’ on our terms, to opt into events rather than really do life together.  It feeds into our comfort and consumerism.

Try a thought experiment with me.  Imagine that everyone in your church lived within walking distance of your church.  You saw each other locally at the shops, at the school gate.  Everyone worked locally, or within half an hour’s commute.  Christian teachers all taught in the local schools.  Christian GP’s and nurses all worked in the local surgeries.  Christian bin men, coffee shop employees and shop workers took the local rounds.  Whatever job people did they did it locally.  What opportunities would this open up to do life more deeply together?  To gather and influence rather than be scattered and our influence diluted?  How would being in and out of each others lives day by day change the way you approached Sunday?  How would it change the way your community saw you and thought about church?

How would it change church?  What greater opportunities would it bring to pray together?  Work together?  Encourage one another?  Be salt and light together?  To evangelise mutual friends together?  To open our homes?  For our children to support one another at school?

Yes it would bring challenges, especially to our idea of professional distance.  But wouldn’t it be an amazing witness to the world, we’d be saying this is the community I am called to serve in, to love, to speak and be grace in.  And so I will move, I will commit, I will rethink how I do that because I am committed to it’s wellbeing and the gospel being proclaimed here, incarnate in us.

Professionalism and the advent of easy travel has robbed us of what was the norm a hundred years ago, the local church serving the local community.

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Are Christian Conferences damaging the local church?

We all swim in the waters of culture and it impacts us more than we realise.  But how have some of those trends impacted the way we approach church?  I want to suggest 3 wider trends and finish with a specifically Christian 1.

Consumerism – My inbox has been inundated this week with notifications about Black Friday Week (!?!) sales.  Inviting me to consume lots of things that I don’t really need.  There’s deals and special prices and all sorts of offers (which honestly are the best they’ll ever be – unless you read what the small print says).  We are always being invited to consume.  In fact it is almost impossible for us to go through a day without being a consumer.

And our consumerism is always about getting the most possible for the least possible outlay.  That’s why we have countless comparison websites, why there are blogs about where to get the best deals, why whenever we buy a product we’re offered future discounts if we just leave a review on Trustpilot or similar.  Because people want to get the most they can.  They want the best.

It’s not hard to see how that might impact Church.  Bring the Trustpilot and Black Friday consumerology into your thinking about church and you will want to go to the best church.  You will travel in order to get the most bang for your buck or value for your time.  You will want somewhere that suits you, where your needs are met.

Individualism – ‘Me time’ has become a huge thing.  It’s the ultimate cry of the individual.  But it’s also seen in the individualisation of everything.  And again it has had an impact on church and people’s approach to it.  There is less concern for the impact of our actions on others, less commitment to the biblical idea of a body, and more a sense of moving for what suits us.  That is a distinctly gospel denying way of thinking!

Entertainment – We are used to being entertained all the time.  The quality of entertainment has risen; be it in terms of GCI crammed films, music and digital audio,  4k TV (so we watch that bead of sweat roll down the footballers nose as he takes that penalty), and so on.  And the glut of entertainment available plays into our individualism like some kind of destructive feed back loop.  Again it’s not hard to see how that impacts church and our involvement in it.  If it’s not slick and well produced we value it less.  If it’s not grabbing our attention and keeping our attention we won’t give it our attention.  The skill of working hard to concentrate on something is increasingly a lost art.  That has huge ramifications for our choice of church, engagement with church, care of others, and engagement with the Bible more generally.

Lastly, and maybe peculiar to Christian culture:

Conference-ism – The church has never been better served by conferences than it is right now.  Word Alive, Keswick, FIEC leaders conference, Spring Harvest, New Wine.  There are multiple opportunity to gather with large numbers of Christians to worship God and encourage one another.  And it is hugely encouraging to meets with hundreds if not thousands of other believers, as a family we have been wonderfully fed and encouraged at those conferences.

But I wonder if it’s having an unintended consequence.  I wonder if it leads us to long for this to be the norm.  I wonder if unintentionally and almost unnoticed they are making us long for the encouragement of meeting with many rather than valuing the small local congregation as God does.

We’ve seen it impact us as a church as families have moved to bigger churches saying they need more believers around them or their children for the encouragement that brings.  Even citing the conference they were at recently and how that encouragement of numbers spurred them, or their children, on and made them realise that they want that every week.  I have lots of sympathy with that, though I think it’s biblically flawed and dangerous for gospel witness.  It smacks of me-ism and ignores God’s mission.

I wonder if our conferences rather than supporting the small local churches, as they aim to, are unintentionally creating a hunger for bigger, better populated meetings ad churches week by week.  So that instead of gathering once a year – or if you’re an conference junkie (not mentioning any names, but you know who you are) 2 or 3 times a year – to be encouraged and then scatter to the local smaller church and serve, we are gathering and creating a hunger for that conference feeling of numerical encouragement every week.  Which is actually not serving the small church but denuding it.  Creating Christians who can only conceive of church as somewhere large and with lots of people like me.

Field of dreams

I thought it was time I gave an update on the fields we are trying to buy (You can read more here: https://algooderham.wordpress.com/2019/07/24/and-he-went-and-bought-that-field/).  It’s been ages since I posted that our bids have been accepted because there are lots of things that have to be done before we can proceed with the purchase.  In the process of doing so a few things have come up.

Firstly – the sellers want to stipulate that they receive 50% of any profit from any proposed development of the fields at the time of planning permission and change of use being sought.  The land would be much more valuable as site with planning permission on it than as agricultural land.  This would mean that were we to decide to build on these fields we would have to pay a lot of money at the point of applying for change of use.  Given that we don’t want to make profit but to potentially put a church building on it that we wouldn’t sell, this is really prohibitive.  We’ve written back and asked that the clause be written such that we would pay the 50% on sale of any development on the land.  Please be praying that God would move the sellers to accept such a proposal.

Secondly – Many of you will know that Grace has seen a number of families move away over the last few years, and some more recently.  Some to ministry in other towns and cities, some to relocate nearer children as they age, others to new jobs, a couple of others just moving church within Doncaster for personal reasons.  This means that Grace is the smallest it has been since the first year of it being planted.  It seems like an enormous thing to be thinking, even potentially in the future, about buying and building.  We’d love you to pray for wisdom for us as a couple and for the church about what to do.  Taking a risk isn’t something we shy away from, but clearly knowing God’s wisdom would be good.

Thanks for your prayers.

green tractor pulling red bin on field at daytime

Is it really the best news in the world?

Be honest with yourself do you really believe that the gospel in the best news is the world?  That everyone of your friends, family, colleagues, neighbours and whoever else you might meet would be better off knowing Jesus?

I wonder if subtly our society has led us to individualise that idea.  So the gospel becomes, not good news for everyone but, good news for me, for my tribe, for the

Want, Need And Must Havechurch, for those who like that sort of thing.  Do we really believe that everyone’s life would be more full of joy if they knew Jesus?  That my neighbour down the street who has everything the world can offer, doesn’t have everything they need?  That my friend who is suffering would have more joy if they knew Jesus?  That those whose lives are full of devastation and loss and isolation or guilt, addiction and restlessness could find hope in Jesus?

I’m not sure that we do.  We are not convinced the gospel is really good news for everyone or we would tell everyone, we couldn’t be stopped.  Yet I see in myself and others a reticence to share the gospel.  Some of that may be caused by hardship and suffering we are going through, some of it may be because of the material prosperity of those around us, some of it may simply be because as Brits we are experts at hiding how broken, lonely and searching we really are.

Ask yourself that question.  Do I really believe this is the best news in the world?  That everyone would be better off knowing Jesus as their Saviour?  Stop and examine your life and see what it is telling you the answer is.

What’s the answer?  Now stop.  Don’t berate yourself.  Ask yourself why?  Why do you think like this?  What is it that you believe is better in the world?  What are you tempted to believe is a better answer than the gospel?  Examine it, turn it over, see its flaws.  Then turn to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and read it and see all that is ours in Christ, go on.  Now make a list; from death to life, from lost to welcome, from divided and hostile to united and loving, from without blessing to blessed beyond imagining, from darkness to light and all by grace.  Read that again, isn’t that the greatest news, no burdens, no sins to atone for, just grace, grace, grace?

Drink it in, fill your heart to overflowing with that good news, ask God to help you take in it’s breathtaking scale and scope.  And then look again at the world outside your window, or cubicle, and ask; Do I really believe this is the best news in the world?  And what will that mean?

Passionate prayer

Last night in our Yorkie Men’s group we were studying 1 Samuel. It’s a striking passage for all sorts of reasons; polygamy, apostasy, where sin leads, Elkanah’s husbanding fail.  But what struck me most last night was the passion and sheer broken heartedness that led Hannah to pray.

Too often we get distracted by wondering was Hannah right to make her vow, was she bargaining with God, treating God as a divine vending machine?  When what we ought to be asking is when did I last pray with a broken heart, when has prayer been as simple, honest and God honouring as pouring out our heart to God?  When did we pray from the depth of our anguish and resentment?

Hannah gives us a model of real prayer.  Prayer that is all in.  Prayer that longs and is the result of seeing and experiencing again and again the brokenness of the world and taking that pain and brokenness to God.  When did I last pray like this?  What breaks my heart in such a way that I pray like this?  Or has the spirit of the age of apathy infused my heart and short circuited my prayers?

We will leave a light on

I don’t know what you think about Halloween, and to be honest I’m not really Light Partythat bothered.  For the last couple of years we’ve made the most of the opportunity and hosted a Light Party for families in the community.

Last night was no exception.  We keep it fairly simple, there’s a big game all together at the start for 10-15 minutes or so as people arrive.  Then it’s a carousel of smaller games (Jar-pong, apple bobbing, crafts, beat the blindfolded keeper, splat the rat, tower of light, and so on), with sweets for each win.  Then we provide hot-dogs and drinks, before a Bible talk on the theme of light, and then a final game, last nights was fishing for donuts.

It’s a fun hour and half.  Last night we had over 50 guests.  There were loads of families from our toddler group come along, and it was great to get to know them a bit better.  Lots of children from the school came and dragged their parents along.  There were old friends, and new contacts.  We pray and hope it will be a bridge for some from the community to other church events, and we pray the simple message we shared of Jesus, the light in our darkness, is a seed sown that eventually bears fruit.

We’d love you to be praying for those that were there.  Last night made us aware again of how stretched we are, almost beyond our capacity to do the event well.  Without a couple of our teens who spent hours setting up, and running games, and others who gave so much of their time we couldn’t run such an event.  But out biggest struggle last night was that we only had 7 adults from church there, each was running at least one game and/or craft, in some cases 2, or cooking.  And that meant we were stretched in terms of time to chat to parents and build relationships beyond a few snatched minutes.

We’ve learned from experience that the calvary isn’t coming.  So please pray that some of those who were there as guests last night would come to follow Jesus and that next year they’d be there running games and serving and chatting for the glory of God, holding out the light they have found to an area in darkness.