Summary of the Theme Talks at Holiday Forum 2018

The Jesus-Shaped Church (Missional Discipleship)

Can you claim to be a Jesus-Shaped Christian?
Do you belong to a Jesus-Shaped Church?

These were the challenges presented to us by Lawrence Moore, lately director of the URC Windermere Centre, who was lead speaker at the URC Holiday Forum held at The Hayes Conference Centre in Derbyshire during August.

  • Christianity in today’s society – the church no longer looks like Jesus
  • Discipleship & faith in the Gospels – a road trip with Jesus
  • Missional Discipleship – the Way of the Cross versus Survival
  • Discipleship – living for the sake of the neediest
  • Being part of the Good News

The content of these five talks, followed by discussions in groups and with Lawrence, formed the central core of the Forum around which the holiday activities, games and outings swirled in lively profusion.

Christianity in today’s society – the church no longer looks like Jesus

Recent research reveals that the Christian Church in the West is in crisis. The primary reason is the yawning gap between Jesus and the institution that bears his name. People of good will and social conscience, although interested in faith, see the Christian Church as Bad News. Outsiders recognise more clearly than we do the gap between their experience of us as church and what they imagine and expect of Jesus. The scale of the crisis is apparent:

  • Christians born in the UK between 2001-2011 fell by 5.3 million – likely to reduce to zero by 2067
  • CoE declining fastest, could probably disappear by 2033
  • Church attendance declined steeply from 11.8% in1980 to 5% in 2015
  • URC numbers in 2015 declined to 27% of 1980 level
  • A US poll of 16-29 year olds revealed only 16% had a positive attitude to church

Overwhelmingly church was viewed as …. Judgemental, hypocritical, old fashioned, too involved in conservative politics and anti-gay.
Yet discussion of Jesus with young people is overwhelmingly positive, he tops Wikipedia’s list of the ten most significant people in world history. He is spoken of warmly and admiringly while comments about the church are negative and hostile. We must conclude that Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus. Missional discipleship needs to look like Jesus and make the same sort of differences in the lives of people and communities as he did.

Discipleship & faith in the Gospels – a road trip with Jesus

Each of the four gospels calls us to follow Jesus by telling the unfolding story of his ministry in the context of a journey, which the disciples undertake with him. The gospels are not histories of Jesus’ life, but a summons to join the community of Jesus followers.

The writers challenge us, their readers, in terms of our faithfulness and obedience, how transformed and abundant our lives are, how compassionate and forgiving we are, particularly to the marginalised and how courageously we stand up to the forces which oppose the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed.

Jesus’ Good News is that God is transforming this world into the Kingdom of God. This means that the way the world works is being undone. God is creating a world of life and flourishing which benefits the poor and marginalised first. No wonder he was so well received in impoverished Galilee. As he turns towards Jerusalem his message provokes hostility from the ruling powers, a confrontation he knows he will lose. This is why the call to discipleship is so uncompromising. Are you prepared to follow wherever this journey with Jesus will lead … even to the cross? There is no easier way, but it is the road to life.

Missional Discipleship – the Way of the Cross versus Survival

Jesus makes two calls to his disciples. The first in Galilee is from their homes, livelihoods and families. The second is at Caesarea Philippi when he makes it clear that following him will entail the journey to Jerusalem, suffering and death. He proclaims … “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew16:25)

There is no turning back. Proclaiming and living by Kingdom standards will inevitably lead to a Roman cross. Jesus rejects the compromises urged on him by the disciples. But God brings Easter out of Good Friday. Jesus’ death and resurrection become the means by which God brings a new creation out of the ashes of the old. Dying and rising must happen to us and to our world so that we can become all that God intends us to be. Through the Holy Spirit we share in Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Baptism is symbolic of this, but is not a once for all event, but the pattern for the whole of Christian life. So learning and developing habits of dying and rising are at the heart of spiritual discipline. It is the secret of becoming and living like Jesus. It is the key to effective and faithful mission. It is The Way that Jesus calls us to follow.

The Church will not be renewed to look like Jesus until it rejects its addiction to survivalism. Survivalism is a mindset – a way of “doing church” that uses dwindling resources of people and money to “last as long as possible” rather than make a Jesus-shaped difference. This is the direct opposite to the Way of the Cross. The salvation of Easter would not have been possible if Jesus had prioritised his own survival. The Church’s priority must be to make a Jesus shaped difference to our people and communities, not to prolong its own life at all costs. In survival mode churches are paralysed from making the courageous decisions that Jesus calls for and cut themselves off from the abundant life he offers.

Discipleship – living for the sake of the neediest

God’s mission in Jesus was to transform the world into the Kingdom of God. In the Lord’s Prayer we involve ourselves in this transformation …. your will be done on earth … and start with me/us.

It is clear from Jesus’ earthly activities that he prioritised the needs of the poor, the marginalised, the excluded in the society of his day. It is clear that he calls us to do the same. In the gospels Jesus speaks of money 400 times, nearly as often as Kingdom. Money is power and its use can corrupt the greedy and sustain the needy. We are told that the world today can feed all the hungry, but the greed of the wealthy impoverishes multitudes. Little wonder wars and famine abound in the world today.

It is claimed that the Church failed to follow Jesus from 313AD when the Roman Empire embraced the western church making it the Church of Empire instead of the Kingdom of God. Many horrors have taken place since, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Trans Atlantic Slavery, Colonialism, anti-Semitism leading to the Holocaust, Apartheid, subjection of women, persecution of homosexuals, all instigated in the name of the Church. Small wonder that increasing numbers of the young have come to regard the Church as toxic.

There is urgent need to discover renewal, refreshment and resourcing through the Holy Spirit in order to engage more effectively and faithfully in mission – life lived for the sake of the world rather than the Church.

Being part of the Good News

So how is this to be done? Lawrence suggested four areas to be explored.

  • Renewing covenant: Contract is what shapes worldly relationships and sadly can be found also in the Church. It sets out what we owe each other and can demand from each other and what the limits of duty and care are. By contrast covenant is about grace, generosity, compassion and no-strings commitments. We need to explore and renew all our relationships and commitments.
  • Learning to trust: Jesus trusted absolutely in God and urged us to do likewise. Too much anxiety about the future imperils our personal and church life limiting and controlling people rather than sharing with them the adventure of discerning God’s will.
  • Investing in Change: Change is scary and uncomfortable. Yet change is at the heart of discipleship. We need to learn how to leave the comfort of the familiar for the vitality of the new life to which Jesus is calling us. We are safest with Jesus – but not safe in the conventional sense.
  • We are God’s answer: The Holy Spirit equips us for discipleship and mission with gifts so that the church individually and collectively can become more recognisably like Jesus and the Good News he proclaims. We need to discover the gifts and resources that we already have “in the room”, rather than assuming that the answer lies in the people who are missing (particularly young people). Then we will be liberated to live joyfully out of God’s abundance, rather than emphasising the scarcity which terrifies and paralyses us at present.

Summary provided by Wendy Atkins : Hadleigh, Suffolk

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