What will our church be like in 40 years time? (Nick Savill)

Matthew 16:13-20
2 Timothy 3:10-4:8

An article in a recent issue of Reform magazine asked “what will the church be like in 40 years?” They asked four people in various positions of leadership throughout the church to give their view, and these were published in the magazine.

Firstly, they asked Susan Durber, the principal of Westminster College. She said that there will be fewer Christians than now, and that many of our current churches will have reached the end of their mission and closed down. So there will be fewer churches.

It will no longer be “normal” to be a Christian, so Christians will have a clearer sense of identity compared with society – something that will be far more counter-cultural.

Peter Brierley, a church leadership consultant, agreed. He quoted Church of England actuaries who have predicted that church attendance will have dropped by 90% by the year 2057. In fact, there would be as many muslims as Christians in our country by this point. 40% of churches will have closed, with congregations half the size they are now. There will be fewer ministers, with many more of those part time. An in terms of the influence that the church has, Christian news would not be reported in the press, and bishops would no longer have seats in the House of Lords.

The largest churches will however still draw many people in.

The next contributor was Christina Rees, who chairs the campaigning group Women and the Church. Her vision was more radical.

In society, India and China were the dominant economic forces in the world, the west having failed to recover from economic crisis. Denominations had split and there was no money left to pay for religion. Archbishop Hannah, was appointed and all religions and denominations were invited to a Synod where they agreed to share buildings – only the cathedrals and largest churches being used. Local fellowships meeting in people’s houses. The religions all subscribed to a new “Common Creed of Good Faith” based on Jesus’s new commandment, the “Golden Rule”: “I believe in the Divine Spirit whose nature is Love and who is calling all people to unity within the Divine Being. I will treat others with the love and respect with which I wish to be treated.”

Over time, these fellowships flourished. Despite the Common Creed, the church remained faithful to Jesus Christ and slowly became woven into the lives of many people in a new way.

The final commentator was Meic Pearse, professor of history at Houghton College, New York, and an international preacher.

Meic said that by 2053 there will only be three kinds of people in church:

  • Those who are currently church members and still alive, minus, of course, those who have wandered off in the meantime.
  • Secondly, our children. Meic was pessimistic about this group, highlighting how many will fall away due to peer pressure or rebellion against their parents.
  • Finally, new converts.

Meic highlights that most new converts occur between the ages of 15 and 25, and are converted in churches that communicate, what he described as “the hard and distinctive content of Christian faith”. Liberal churches do not tend to see new converts, and that augers ill for them.

He also highlighted the rise of Christianity in China, and also the continued investment China is making in sub-Saharan Africa. He suggested that the Muslim north Africans would continue to attack the Christians in this region, and that China would increasingly intervene on their behalf. “Everything points to China as the great defender of the faith in this century”, he says. “Who’d have thought it?”

So that’s what a bunch of Christian leaders think will happen in the church in general. But what about our own church? What will Farnham United Reformed Church be like in 40 years time?

Let’s start by thinking about who will be in the church.

In 40 years many of us here this morning will have died, and will be with the Lord.
I will be an old man of 85.
Peter Tropman will be almost my age.

But it is hard to think that in this era of mobility that many of us here today will still be in Farnham. Of those of us who have not moved, some will have fallen away, and others will have moved to other churches.

So one thing we can be fairly sure of is that very few of us here now will still be in this church.

So we have to ask two key questions:

  • After over 350 years of history, do we want to be the last generation of people worshipping in this congregation?
  • And if not, what do we need to do to attract and retain people to our congregation?

It is not for me to suggest answers to these questions, but I do think we need to start thinking about them as a church.

I will make a few observations however.

Firstly, we need to recognise what we do best.

In my opinion, one of things we do well is to attract people late in their working life or early in retirement into a healthy and welcoming community where they can contribute and where they are supported.

If we sometimes come into this church and get faced with a sea of grey heads, it’s because we are very successful at welcoming and integrating the older members of our society into our fellowship. We need to keep doing this, because if we keep doing this then we will survive as a church.

Secondly, we need to teach our children well.

2 Timothy 3:14 says:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

How can our children do this unless we teach clearly and thoroughly from the Bible?

This is the importance of our children’s and young people’s work, and it is essential to keeping our church healthy. The children of today will be the leaders of tomorrow.

Thirdly, we need to attract new families, younger adults and children. And we need to work hard to keep those we currently have.

The work that Belle is doing in terms of reaching out to families is vital. But it should not be down to one paid staff member, but down to all of us as a church to do this.

We need to ask what our church needs to be like to do attract people in, and once they have visited, to retain them. What do we need to change? Because all the evidence suggests that we are not doing it well at the moment. The number of people below their mid-50s in this congregation is relatively small, in comparison with the size of the church, in comparison with the community, and in comparison with some of the other churches around Farnham. And once people do join us, they often move on after a short while.

Once when we know what we need to be like, we need to think about how we need to get there over time. Small, achievable steps that allow people to adapt and not feel alienated by change.

When I was on my summer holiday this year, we visited Stirling Castle, where a group of weavers is working hard over recent years to reproduce a set of tapestries from the middle ages. They were very skilled artists, and the tapestries were exceedingly beautiful and detailed. A tapestry may take up to two years to complete, and cost around £½ million pounds – most of the cost being the labour.

So complex were these tapestries that if the weavers thought about the whole picture, they could never have done it. But each weaver worked on a small fragment of the tapestry at any time, so that they could devote their entire focus onto one small detail. And over time the complete picture would emerge.

And so it needs to be with us. We need to concentrate on each detail of our journey – for a journey there must be – allowing each small piece of change to happen. And slowly we will head towards where we need to be.

From next week, once a month for three months, Michael has introduced an experiment to try to make our services cater for a wider variety of people. For some people here, these changes will be uncomfortable, for they like things how they are, and we all dislike change.

And some of those people will complain about the change.

If that is you, I would like to appeal to you to think about why you are complaining. Are you complaining because you feel the change is taking us in the wrong direction on our journey, or are you complaining because you just don’t like change?

If your complaint is that you feel we are going in the wrong direction as a church, then don’t just complain, but think about what we need to achieve and make positive suggestions as an alternative. Be constructive in your criticism.

However, if your complaint is simply that you don’t like change, because you like things how they are, then consider if your complaint will really serve God’s kingdom.

For to complain about change is to strangle that change. And if we don’t change, we won’t appeal to a new generation. And if we don’t appeal to a new generation, then we will die as a church.

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus said in the 5th century BC, “Nothing is permanent except change.”

I want to finish by turning back to our scripture readings today.

From 2 Timothy 4:1-5:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable;

And it definitely does feel like the time is unfavourable at the moment.

convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

How much does this seem to be true of our culture, of our land at the moment? In a world of pick and mix religion, of no moral absolutes, where people do not want to hear the Gospel preached, but instead turn to teachers who really do suit their own desires.

As for you, Timothy continues, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

If we do these things, Christ says, and I am quoting from the NRSV translation of our first reading from Matthew this morning, even “the gates of Hades will not prevail against us.”

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