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The Church at Home (No Transfer Window)
Submitted by AFAN team member Mike Ward a Christian on 01/02/2011 09:50
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Last week Bolton came to a standstill. Nat Lofthouse, "The Lion of Vienna", was laid to rest. Thousands lined the streets to say farewell to their local footballing hero. Jimmy Armfield put it this way: "The words ‘Bolton' and ‘Lofthouse' went together." As I write this, the sports bulletin on my radio has just broken the news that Fernando Torres (who?) has just left Liverpool to sign for Chelsea for a fee of £50 million. This is the last day of football's transfer window; promises of loyalty and commitment to one club fly out of the window in a silly game of real-life monopoly played with million-pound notes. Good luck to Torres; but so much for his undying love for Liverpool. Money talks. And, by a curious coincidence, in front of me is an article by a Bolton fan who remembers Nat Lofthouse from his childhood: "The maximum wage for footballers was lifted in 1961, too late for Nat. Within 10 years, George Best and successive Miss Worlds were flitting around in his E-Type between his boutique, his nightclub and his posh house in Cheshire. But in 1958, the Radcliffe bus was good enough for Nat; and what strikes me most now is our utter certainty that it would be, that he would be there signing autographs for us at the Radcliffe bus stop." Yes, the bus stop. 33 goals for England, maybe, but Nat Lofthouse remained a Bolton lad to the very end.
But then lifelong anything is a thing of the past. Gone are the days when people joined a trade union or political party when they were barely out of the womb and remained card-carrying members until they gasped their final breath. It's the pick-n-mix society; you pays your money, you takes your choice. Not satisfied with the local football club? Well, there is another down the road. Supermarket? Ditto. School or college? The same. Church? Well, you pays your money and takes your choice there too. Don't like the minister or the hymbook? Don't worry; there's another church down the road.
Last week I heard a fellow Christian come out with a chilling remark I have heard before: "I'm not sure if I would invite my friends to my local church!" What they meant was that such is the state of "their" local church, they are not sure if it is good enough (modern enough? warm enough? Or, more likely, short enough on a Sunday morning?) to invite a friend. Yet 80% of people who come back to church do so because of a personal invitation. So where will they go if we start apologizing for the rising damp, the mildew in the third pew at the back and the length of the minister's sermons? I remember a young woman in the church where I ministered returning after being converted at a Billy Graham rally. The counselling at the rally after the "altar-call" had been impeccable; impeccable in all but one respect. It had been suggested there was a lively Christian church in the city eight miles down the road. Loyalty to her local church counted for nothing. We had brought her up; baptised her children; but our church was not on the list where Jesus saves. Billy Graham was the forerunner of a thousand Fernando Torres, or Wayne Rooneys or anyone whose head is turned by flashy big numbers, or guitars on a Sunday morning, or - well, the list is endless.
Never mind that the church in your village has been around when you most need it, witnessing in its own quiet timeless way, for centuries. "The church at home" is becoming a thing of the past. Small is not beautiful; flash is beautiful; ecclesiastical bling is beautiful. "There's a young minister down the road, and he uses PowerPoint and videos! And he wears jeans!" Like Moses distracted by a private conversation with God, suddenly the annual statistical membership return is filled in and we discover "the church at home" has been seduced, its numbers decimated, by a human-made golden calf, a Church of Jesus Christ (no denominational baggage! No committees!) with a new building and comfortable seats ten miles away and that church is packing them in - "you know, next to Asda. (I'm a Tesco man myself.)"
"The church at home" is not perfect. Hey, it has you and me in it! "It is often too frail for the modern storm, is that church at home. Too conformist to a world that's dying. Too respectable for the drunkard or the wretch to feel at home. Too keen about its money to accuse an acquisitive society..." So wrote George Macleod in one of his great prayers on Iona. But Macleod could remember its achievements too of that crumbling cold edifice we both mock and take for granted: "children, in all the dross of false teaching, still clutching the gold; going about forgiving because they know they are forgiven; going about fearless because they know evil is conquered."
But for how much longer? Not for much longer, if we let the "I wouldn't-want-to-take-my-friends-here" Christian consumers of the cosy and the convenient have their way. What then for the elderly lady who has worshipped in the same pew for 60 years? Or the handicapped or learning disabled teenager who knows he is among friends? Or the widow who does not drive but can walk to her church? What price loyalty then? Until sooner or later the church at home is no longer there, replaced by the latest supermarket of the divine in an out-of-town park only ten miles away. If I had one wish this year, I would put a twenty-year ban on church membership transfer requests and hand out car stickers: The local church is not just for Christmas. It's for life! Except people are not members any more.
For discussion: Is this just a Christian problem, or do other faith groups suffer from a consumerist view of religion?