What game should the Church play, if its in a relegation scrap?

“Changing our world depends on changing our hearts, how we perceive, name and act in the world” (Labberton, 2010;23)

It’s that time of the football season. Sir Alex Ferguson called it squeaky bum time, but that was when for him and the Man Utd team he managed were fighting for the Premier league title. A trophy and a title at stake. Though as any sportperson would concur with the final points to get to the win are the hardest, just ask all those Tennis players and Golfers who have crumbled in the last round or at match point. And that’s when the winning post is in sight.

At the opposite end of the table, when the trap door of relegation is on the cards, a whole new level of fear grips the team. Fear grips so much that mistakes are attemped to be avoided, but are then more likely. The skill of the manager is to try and get the team to ‘play their natural game’. For when this happens the team are freer to use their skills, passing and taking the risks to make attempts at goal. Hans George Gadamer describes the difference between play that is conscious, and play that is natural. stating that “Play fulfils its purpose only if a player loses himself in play” (1975:107)

For the team, the best thing for them to do is forget everyone telling them that they’re in a relegation battle. and get on with playing football. However hard that might be.

I wonder, does the church, especially in the UK act as though its in a relegation battle?

Not a day goes past without a number of pieces of small sample research published by academics stating that church attendances are in decline. Or that in Census data that those whom ‘ticked Christian/CofE’ is decreasing (down to 51% apparently in 2011). Then there’s those ‘people who leave the church’ blogs and articles, sharing why theyve left, and how they now represent a whole generation of used to be church goers.

All of this might have the church believing its in some kind of relegation battle.

Maybe thats the problem. Its bought into the notion that it is. Not only might it believe its in a numerical relegation battle, but due to rose-tinted spectacles of a long forgotten past – also believes its status is society (Christendom) is under threat.

The problem with being in a relegation battle for a football team is that its becomes pre-occupied with its status, and forgets what game it should be playing.

Reactions to ‘church in a relegation battle’ have been numerous.

  1. Employ a youthworker
  2. Back to basics courses for the ‘in-churched’ and friends of (Alpha and others)
  3. Services which look more like contemporary soft rock concerts.
  4. Powerpoint screens.
  5. Not being like ‘boring’ churches
  6. Reshaping church style ( Cafe church, youth church etc)
  7. A turn to business strategy thinking and efficiency targetting. (the equivalent of employing Sporting directors in football clubs who have no idea of the game)
  8. The younger players in the game leaving one church, to start one only for them.
  9. Various initiatives, Years and decades of evangelism. Turns to prayer.

Dont mis-hear me, this is not a dig at what these things are or have been,  but often they have been seen as the great hope for growing and sustaining the church, in the midst of its own fears of the future.

The problem with some of these is that church has become for the church’s sake. Like Mission isnt for missions sake either. Neither is Mission for the sake of the church. Its as if the team only try their new tricks on the training ground, and not in front of the live audience. As Gadamer attests “The audience only completes what the play as such is” (1975:113)

Status anxiety is potentially gripping the church. On a local level, with ageing and declining congregations, and as a result on a national level. The only exclusions to this are the city centre churches with an obvious incoming congregation of students/young families to fight over & keep.

But status anxiety has caused a problem, or at least might cause a problem in which it threatens the faithful performance of the church. Worrying about its existence, its reaction could be to forget its actual purpose, that is to join in with Gods ongoing redemptive drama of transforming the world, doing so walking in love, mercy and humility.  (for more on this see Vanhoozer 2014)

This morning I preached on the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22 & Col 3:12) which are well known, and provide the essence of the game-play of the gospel. But in asking the church this morning, what would church look like if it played according to these fruits, and did so outside of its walls?  The response from the congregation today was that it would be inclusive, it would be radical, it would change and transform the world. What kind of church right now is going about doing this?

If as church we are to be players in the dramatic game of the gospel, then the game is played as an action to be socially subversive and bring a new reality into existence with Christ, to be an integrated way of life that enables flourishing of persons, of communities and of all creation.

In short the game of the church is to present Christ in the world not to extend christendom, or worry about growing the church.

If the church believes it is in a relegation battle, then its play will be affected by the status it wants to hold. If the church forgets the status it wants to hold, and plays the game its meant to then, the world might just be changed as a result. It might have to rethink how it plays its game, and do so so that it can become players of the game in a new natural way.  Maybe it might escape the relegation battle, and like Leicester City this season only worry about playing a simple game taking the world of football by storm.

This sums up some of this.



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