Do you remember the days when the greatest evil in our churches was being ‘stuck in the past’? Venerating the good old days at the expense of the present, refusing to change the way things are, sitting safely inside our so-called ‘comfort zone’. Churches were hopelessly ensnared in a turgid culture of hymns ancient and incomprehensible; prayers that would reach eternity only by lasting that long; sermons in the jolly spiffing ‘Language of Zion’. Mission meant turning on the church lights occasionally and unlocking the doors for services, and vision meant your bifocals could cope with the Baptist Hymn Book.
Ministers were either at the vanguard of annihilating the forces of tradition, or else they were lamentably content with a ‘maintenance ministry’.
But now, the strife is over, the battle won. How times have changed. We are no longer stuck in the past. Liberated from the stifling atmosphere of traditionalism, we are free to ‘live in the now’!
But I wonder how alert we are to the cultural pendulum swing that leaves us no more able to live in the present than we were before. No longer are we trapped in the past. Now, instead, we seem unwittingly imprisoned in the future. Confined in a tomorrow that will never arrive. Our incarceration is maintained by the way that we tend to use the liturgical language of aims, objectives, twelve month goals and five year plans.
All too often, the way that such practices are pursued implies that God’s blessing is located somewhere beyond the horizon. We are usually told that these practices are simply tools that help us to provide focus, so they are harmless in themselves. Okay, it might be good business practice. London Police have even seized such growth-strategy documents from drug-dealers keen to expand their activity in the local community. The only difference in church is that we attach biblical sounding phrases like ‘god-given’, ‘vision’ and ‘mission’ to our desire to 'build bigger barns'.
It is very difficult to adopt such practices without the worldview that comes attached: seeing what we want to achieve, then setting out to accomplish it. If this sounds harmless, it only shows how far we have wondered from Scripture. The fruits that the Spirit brings come ‘in season’ (Ps 1), not in accordance with our supposedly god-given plans; blessings blossom from the mercies of God, never from the fruit of our visionary labours (salvation by works); Seeking the gifts rather than the Giver is precisely what the Devil attempted to persuade the Messiah to do (Lk 4).
Our preoccupation with the goals that purposely drive our churches towards God’s future blessing are likely to dull our senses to what God is already doing here and now, under our very noses.
There is an alternative. Seeking to be alert to what God is doing now, to rejoice in it and to be part of it. The French word for ‘now’ (maintenant) is the root of our word for ‘maintenance’. A maintenance ministry is one that keeps the church living in the ‘now’ of God’s blessing, a difficult calling in the consumerist culture dictating that ‘now’ can never be sufficient.
In a purpose driven world of future targets, twelve month goals and five year plans, a maintenance ministry is the only sort that can take seriously the fact that ‘God set a certain day, calling it “today”’ (Heb 4:7)
(Pusblished in BT, 2008)