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  • Hannah Williamson

"What in the World is going on?" said the church

A few reflections on how the struggles of our world could impact the future of our churches.....

‘He (Jesus) is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything. At the centre of all this, Christ rules the church. The church, you see, is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.’ Ephesians 1: 22-23 (MSG)

It’s about a year since we all went into ‘Lock down’ and life turned somewhat upside down! I’m reminded today that nothing ever takes God by surprise but this certainly took us by surprise. I’ve always been a fairly reflective person. I tend to like to really think things through before making a decision. This has often outworked in the fact that when things are going on in my life, I like to process them through with God, using both His Word and a journal, helping me to understand and hopefully learn in order to move forward. When my Dad passed away, I didn’t write in my journal for 2 weeks. That doesn’t sound like that big a deal but for me it was. My brain wasn’t able to process what was going on. It felt too muddled. The most I could do when it came to my time with Jesus was speak verses aloud that I had remembered. I just remember thinking ‘What in the world is going on?’ My Dad was not just my dad but my pastor and so I know that for our church the same question probably resounded in many people’s minds - “What in the world is going on?”

Fast forward 18 months to March 2020 and the whole world was asking “What in the world is going on?” as coronavirus hit but we saw from that moment on, not just a global pandemic affecting health, but multiple social issues come to the forefront in the year to follow which would leave so many of us asking “What in the world is going on?” While hundreds around the world were dying due to an unknown virus, we watched on our TV’s as George Floyd shouted ‘I can’t breathe’ in the last moments of his life, sparking a movement across the world seeking to once and for all stand up against racial injustice that for thousands of years has impacted our world. We then watched the misuse of power continue to play out across the world in various political environments, some places where misuse of power has always been a problem, other places where we did not expect it. The rise of the affect of the pandemics of both sickness and hate caused various other waves of pain to strike our world through hundreds of people grieving without being able to say their final goodbyes and people’s mental health being struck as they were isolated from community. Raging opinions on vaccines and the trust or lack of in the government sparked huge debates and in the last few days we have seen a spark of anger and horror at the brutal murder of a young woman walking home one night from south London resulting in women speaking out in uproar against years of misogyny throughout society. What in the world is going on?

It is into so many of the above societal issues that I think of the verse in Romans 8:22 that says, ‘we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.’ It feels as if our world is groaning from the burden of sin. And it is into this that I hope today the church is asking “What in the world is going on?” I hope the church would seek to understand the pain of the world through the lense of God’s word. I hope the question, ‘What in the world is going on?’ is not just a phrase of disbelief, but a call to action. I hope the church would rise and realise they are the answer. Jesus still is the head of the church and the answer to the groaning of the world. It is into this, that I write today to help us think about the impact that the various horrors in our world could have on the church of tomorrow or rather, I hope, the church of today. I hope to prompt thought so that the church will not be a group of people that hide away when things get tough with their head in their hands asking “What in the world is going on?” but that the church would rise to be the leaders of change in the aching world in which we find ourselves.

Struggle 1: A Global Pandemic : “The Big ‘Shut-Down’”

The Impact on the Church?

Within a few weeks of the pandemic hitting, churches began to close. This caused some to be in uproar at the government. I found this strange as a building shutting never means the church shuts because the church has never been about the building anyway. It’s always been about the people. There are countries in the world today who don’t have the privilege of having buildings due to persecution. Ironically the church is growing the quickest in these places. I think the ‘big shut down’ of churches did bring into question whether we have focussed on the wrong things for too long. More than ever the world needed the church but some churches were unprepared for life without the ‘big event’ - Sunday services. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Sundays. I cannot wait for the day I can gather with hundreds of fellow Christians and worship together. The thought makes me somewhat emotional even thinking about it. But church is not only that. It is so much more. I think some realisations regarding the church came about how we truly disciple people like Jesus did. He always had a small group of people who He was pouring into regularly. I think the church realised how important smaller groups of discipleship are and also the need for Jesus-like compassion in a hurting world.

How could this change the church of the future?

I say "could", because it could also not change anything. Everything is about choice right? But the impact of this last year on the church could be powerful. I hope the church will take more seriously the ‘empowerment of the individual.’ I hope the church will realise how vital small groups are to disciple people, ensuring it doesn’t all rely on the one leader who speaks from the front but on multiple empowered leaders pastoring people. I hope the church will realise the need for great compassion. I think the world needs a church that cares, not just a church that speaks. In Luke 5:12-13 Jesus comes across an individual with leprosy. The man is desperate and rather than walk on by as so many would have done, he ‘reached out his hand and touched the man.’ He showed compassion to the individual. I pray that we as a church will be brave enough to touch the pain of the world, bringing compassion and love rather than just focussing on the ‘big gathering.’

How has the pandemic affected your church? How could this impact be used to shape the way you ‘do church’ in the future?

Struggle 2: Racism: The Big Question of Equality

The Impact on the Church?

Again, big matters of social justice can either be a wake up call to the church or something to ignore in hope that it goes away. When it comes to this huge issue of Racism, I hope what happened last year would be like a slap in the face to the church. The question that I hope would rise in the church world is ‘Are we truly reflecting the Kingdom of God in our churches?’ Another area to consider is ‘Will we as the church engage in conversations about areas of life that are hurting others?’ The church has often had a dark history of injustice when it comes to race. During the wind rush generation, Caribbean Christians came to the UK and tried to joined the established churches only to be ostracised and pushed out. This is truly unbelievable but a reality of what happened. As we walk into the future we have to do better to reflect the kind of church God wants.

How could this change the church of the future?

I hope that the protests of ‘black lives matter’ will spark the church to rise out of ignorance and begin to ask questions. I hope the church will be more conscious of those within their own communities who are of a different colour to themselves. I hope that church leaders will be more intentional about building relationships and raising leaders who are of a different ethnicity to themselves. I hope churches will repent for the way it has at times ignored the verse from Galatians 3:28 that says, ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Jesus modelled this to us in an extreme way when he engaged in conversation with the woman at the well in John 4. It is hard for us to understand how radical it was because we don’t live in that society now but the Samaritans were hated and treated extremely poorly by many people at the time. To talk to a Samaritan would have been seen as totally unacceptable. Jesus reached through this barrier to elevate this woman’s place in society. As a result of His conversation, this woman went on to share Jesus with an entire town. The impact of acceptance and inclusion was radical. I hope as we break down walls of racism and prejudice our impact will also be unbelievably radical through our churches.

How are you as a church addressing issues of racism? Who are you engaging in conversations with regarding this? How are you being intentional about raising leaders of all ethnicities?

Struggle 3: Misuse of Power : An Age-old Problem

The Impact on the Church?

The past year has brought some unbelievable scenes on our TV. In Myanmar, we recently saw the picture of a nun kneeling before soldiers begging for the lives of the innocent in a country torn apart by violence due to the misuse of power. Just a few months earlier we saw the president of the USA inciting his followers to violence leading to the storming of the capitol building. Some of these followers held up banners using the name of Jesus to suggest the violence they were using was somewhat condoned. In both Myanmar and the USA we have been shocked by the misuse of power. We see this in so many ways as we read the account of Jesus being crucified. Religious leaders and political leaders either encouraging or allowing the killing of an innocent man but using their influence to incite a crowd of followers. I think the impact of these incidents around the world could encourage the distrust of leaders in the church. We know in the past few years a number of allegations have been made against Christian leaders themselves especially in relation to their power over women. This has put a spotlight on the integrity of leaders both within and outside of the church.

How could this change the church of the future?

I hope this will affect the church of the future by encouraging the church to understand the importance of authentic leadership, high accountability and the need to empower many rather than relying on the one ‘celebrity leader.’ I think people are crying out for ‘real’ leaders who can balance showing their weakness along with leading strong. When we look at the model of Jesus, He exuded humility right to the very point of death and taught his followers to do the same. Power tries to cover over weakness but 2 Corinthians 12:9 says, ‘for my power is made perfect in weakness’ - God’s power not our power outworking through our vulnerability. I hope a more authentic leader will arise in the church. I hope this kind of misuse of power will encourage leaders to see the value in having high accountability. Maybe the need for community has been highlighted through this global pandemic but I hope leaders will see the value not just for ‘friends’ but for people around them willing to help them in their weaknesses. Finally, I hope the church will see the value in empowerment. The need to raise up and release many people within their churches to be a positive influence on others rather than leaving it to an individual or just a core group of people.

How can you encourage authentic, God honouring, humble leadership in your church? How are you ensuring leadership does not turn into a place for celebrities to rise?

Struggle 4: Poor Treatment of Women: This began a long long time ago!

The Impact on the Church?

Just a few days ago in the UK news we saw a woman in her early 30’s brutally killed by a police officer after vanishing from a South London park. Her body was found a week later in a woodland area in Kent. This sparked uproar across the nation and women began to share their experiences misogyny. The poor treatment of women has been an age-old problem and one that unfortunately reaches into the church. It feels crazy that this should still be a problem but it is. In John 8:2-11, we see a most powerful moment where a woman is brought to Jesus who had been ‘caught in’ adultery by the religious leaders. Ironically, the man wasn’t brought too....surely he had a role to play?! Interestingly, they were trying to make this matter a legal one, asking Jesus what legally should happen to her as a result of her sin. Did you know that it was only in recent years that rape in a marriage was formally seen as a crime? The law and the treatment of women was an issue then as it still is now. Jesus, however addresses the ‘law enforcers’ of the time reminding them of their sin and then in an incredibly powerful way speaks to the woman. In those times he shouldn’t have spoken to her, engaged in conversation and certainly not treated her with kindness yet Jesus acts differently. The impact on the church because of the highlighted poor treatment of women in our news, could cause women to begin to speak up.

How could this change the church of the future?

For me, this is a very exciting possibility for the church. Of course, I am a woman so some could say I am biased but think about it for a moment...If woman could truly be empowered and released, imagine the impact. The amount of men to women in the world is roughly equal. In the church, there are often more women than men. If we want to reach the whole world, maybe we should expect to use the whole church? Men and women, side by side extending the Kingdom of God. For so many years women have been expected to stay in the background but I’m not sure this is ever what God intended. When in Genesis God said he would make a ‘helper’ for Adam it didn’t mean ‘helper’ in the way we see this. The word ‘Ezer’ which we translate as helper is a term used in the Old Testament to describe God in a military context, suggesting he is fighting for us. ‘Helper’ is so weak a word. I imagine the church of the future being full of men and women, standing side by side fighting together to extend God’s Kingdom, building His church. Women who have a place a the tables of decision making. Women who will speak God’s Word with as much authority as a man. Women who will lead and win many souls for God. The future of the church could be exciting if we really understand what ‘women speaking up’ means!

Are women in your church intentionally raised to lead? Are women in your church part of the decision making processes? If not, why not?

Struggle 5: Mental Health - possibly made worse by isolation

The Impact on the Church?

We are speaking a lot more about mental health these days. After World War 2, thousands of soldiers came home with PTSD, only we didn’t identify it as that back then. People just seemed traumatised but no-one ever spoke about it. Today we speak about these issues a lot more. Today we understand the mind a lot better. In this 'covid world' we now live in, mental health has come even more to the forefront due to the trauma of what we have been through. People facing loss but not able to grieve properly. People living for months without seeing anybody. Elderly people completely isolated. We were made to need community yet through this last year we have seen so few people. Of course, we have technology to help us connect but it's still not the same as being in the same room as people, especially when facing difficulty. The impact on the church could be quite significant as we come out of lock down, as people may be searching for community and searching for help to understand what they have been through.

How could this change the church of the future?

In Mark 5, Jesus meets a man who is clearly struggling mentally. The story describes him as someone who others kept away from, someone who self harmed and a man who cried out in mental torment. Jesus meets him, right where he was at and asks him his name. I’ve always loved the point where he asks his name, because it shows Jesus’ genuine interest in the individual. Jesus engages in conversation and brings healing to him. When it comes to trauma, regardless of how bad it has been, what is most encouraged is the talking about it in a safe environment. As the church ‘comes back’ or continues on, I think smaller settings where true discipleship takes place will bring real healing to people who have faced difficulty over the past year. I think if the church can understand the importance of body, soul and spirit and how they are intertwined they could bring real help to people. I think the NHS will struggle with the amount of people suffering from depression, anxiety and other related illnesses because it will be overwhelmed but this could be the point at which the church steps up to bring the light of Jesus through genuine and healthy community and support.

How are you as a leader dealing with any trauma you have faced? How is your church seeking to help people struggling with mental illness?

Struggle 6: Shared Grief - something that is often swept under the carpet

The Impact on the Church?

This closely follows on from the above struggle as it links to mental health although I think requires some separate thought. Grief is very individual and so speaking of ‘shared grief’ is a strange thing. After the world wars there was such thing as ‘shared grief’ because so many people had lost people. Because it had become ‘shared’ meaning that everyone had gone through grief, maybe it wasn’t spoken about as much. People just had to ‘get on’ as it was all 'part of life.' I’m not sure this ever helped. Grief is a strange thing as it does affect people differently although some experiences may be similar. When I was facing grief at times I wanted to speak to people who understood what I was going through but at other times I didn’t want to because I couldn’t bare someone telling me they understood what I was going through when in many ways they didn’t. As we consider the church and the impact of so many people having lost people, we must understand that there will be a lot of broken people in the fuzziness of grief. People trying to muddle through their feelings and work out what has happened to them through them losing someone close to them. Not only have many people lost family members but they have faced loss in other areas of life such as loss of jobs, loss of a section of their education, loss of the way things were. Everyone will be trying to make sense of this new world we live in and all of those people will be in our churches.

How could this change the church of the future?

In Luke 7:11-17, Jesus went into a town where a funeral was taking place of a mother’s only son. I love the description of Jesus where it says in verse 13, ‘When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, ‘don’t cry’….’ Jesus showed huge compassion to this woman and went on to speak directly to her (remember this was not the thing men did in those days!). I think it’s important to understand what he was saying when he said ‘Don’t cry.’ I don’t think he was telling her to have no emotion but I think he was saying something like ‘I hate to see you in so much pain.’ I think the most important way this ‘shared grief’ could hopefully change the church is in the way we address issues that are often not spoken about. I don’t remember growing up ever hearing anyone from the platform talk about grief. I hope churches will acknowledge the pain and speak into it from a biblical standpoint. I hope churches will help their congregations understand what the bible teaches when it comes to ‘lament.’ Grieving was such an important part of the Jewish culture and was in many ways a shared emotion. I hope we will take that on and help people grieve in healthy ways rather than leaving it as an ‘issue’ that we hide away and hope goes away!

How are you speaking into the pain of people in your congregation through preaching and teaching? Have you got anything in place that specifically helps people with struggles such as grief or other struggles like debt, mental health etc?

Struggle 7: The Gap in opinion on vaccines

The Impact on the Church?

This has been an interesting one but there are certainly a wide variety of opinions when it comes to whether or not you should get a vaccine, whether they are safe and whether we are being told the whole truth from the government. There has been huge pressure on pastors and leaders when it comes to multiple decisions over the past year. There was heavy criticism on one side for allowing services to go ahead, putting people at greater risk and then heavy criticism on another side of people saying churches were caving into persecution by shutting their services. When it came to vaccines, there have been similar discussions and debates. I believe this could hugely impact the church by taking away the focus from what really should be our main thing which is ‘making disciples’ according to Jesus’ great commission. We could become obsessed with trying to debate our point of view and lose focus on loving people which is really what we should be focussing on.

How could this change the church of the future?

Jesus often faced questions from the religious leaders of the time who were always trying to trip him up. They were often trying to engage in a debate. I don’t wish to comment hugely on vaccines or give my personal opinion because that would defeat the object of this, but what I do think is important is to understand why people may come with differences of opinions. We all have different experiences in our backgrounds that affect the way we think. The beauty of the church is all people from all backgrounds coming together regardless of different opinions or viewpoints to worship Jesus. That is the focal point. I think there could be various ‘matters to debate’ down the line - things other than whether we believe a vaccine is right to take or not. What I believe will be important for churches is to create safe environment where healthy conversations can take place (not big and rude arguments!) but also to ensure that people are always pointed back to Jesus and God’s word to understand how to make healthy and educated decisions. I think it will also be important for churches to constantly focus on the 'main thing' of sharing the love of Jesus with a broken world.

How does your church create healthy environments for debate without ostracising people with differing opinions? How can you as a leader ensure you are always keeping the main thing, the main thing which is pointing people to Jesus?

A few final thoughts….the world is messy and the church should be in the centre of the mess, reaching out into the messiness with the love of Jesus. Amidst all these struggles that we face in our world today, continually seek God’s word to understand the world we live in through His eyes. In possibly the most famous verse in the Bible it says, ‘For God SO LOVED the world…’ (John 3:16). We too should SO LOVE the world we live in and seek to do all we can to be the kind of church that shares this love in a very broken world.

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