Less than twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Paul had to write to the church in Corinth rebuking them strongly for turning away from the vision and practice of selfless love and witness which had been embodied in Jesus by God, not least in his death. All the complaints Paul deals with boil down to a failure by Christians to be what he calls in one glorious metaphor 'the body of Christ'.
It was only when they demonstrated the selfless love for which Paul called, even to the point of resisting Caesar, that thousands joined them, disenchanted with the dominant values of that time, described by Suetonius as worship of the emperor, as an uphill struggle to make a living or a profit in a corrupted market system, as the assumption that happiness equals sexual pleasure or the thrill of watching sport and as playing with pseudo-spirituality through soothsayers and astrology. (At least in our society we don't actually worship the emperor - yet.)
Few would deny a widespread disenchantment with our own materialist values even as they have delivered an amazing rise in the standard of living in so many ways, such that we now describe ourselves as the 'developed' countries. So why are the churches shrinking when, someone might say, our cup runneth over? The fact that the Church is growing overall, with the number of Christians keeping pace with the rise in population across Africa and Asia, cannot and must not hide the hard fact of numerical decline in our own country. If it were not for advances in personal health and wealth have allowed the average 70 year old to remain quite sprightly, most local congregations in all the mainstream denominations would lack lay leadership altogether. This decline has led to much heart-searching and to many surveys, often to self-righteous movements and splits...
Vision is nearer than dream but beyond agenda; it should inspire commitment, not a shrug of the shoulders at the impractical nor yet a sigh at yet more tasks. For us, and crucially for all churches, the core issue is 'what does it mean today to follow Jesus together?’ That surely is the key to the vision.
Note 'together' since this is not an article about personal discipleship but about honesty. How should an institution, perceive and follow that vision? How do we go about demonstrating in our life the selfless, courageous love which was fully embodied in Jesus by God who has sought to embody it in believers ever since. How to be an unselfish community whose pre-occupation is the ‘other’ and not ourselves. ?
For me a key element in any persuasive vision would be one of the most distinctive things has to be working alongside all people of good-will – wherever and who ever they may be. As human organisations, churches (meaning local congregations or mainstream denominations) have an in-built tendency for self-preservation. This institutional default position is, of course, boosted by nostalgia and a false reading of the call to preserve the faith. But I say loud and clear that it is this very self-preservation which our loving and trustworthy God is telling us to give up, as prophets and preachers have forever been telling God's people to do. To ensure our own survival is not enough.
So when it becomes abundantly clear that no denomination can plan alone beyond 2010, then the half-hidden challenge is exposed as the only way. We must go forward with and mysteriously 'in' that Christ whose body we are meant to be. 'Is Christ divided?' Who will be the church (local congregation or major denomination) to say 'we are willing to cease being as we have been' before their resources, human and material, are exhausted and while they are still able to make a difference?
To give up one's life before one's time looks like foolishness; the issue for us is whether this might be the foolishness of the Christ-like God who is forever set against the sin of self-preservation - even when it is disguised as loyalty to the Church!
We who claim to be convinced of the ecumenical imperative need to recapture that vision, not for the survival of the mainstream but because it is theologically necessary in a world which comes ever closer to rendering to Caesar what should belong to God, namely the dignity and true well-being of what it means to be human.