Reflections on a Sabbatical


A recipe for church decline is to have a vicar or minister for a short time - three or four years - and then make sure he moves on. Apparently four years is now the average time a Protestant clergyman in the US stays in his job. It probably is not much different in the UK. Growing congregations, however, usually have long-stay clergy. The reason is simple. It takes a pastor four, five or six years to get to know a church and its social dynamics. So it is folly for him to move on before he knows the ropes or just at the point he can begin to be really productive.

The reason so many move on, I am sure, is that they feel a need for a break or a change. They feel they are getting stale or exhausted. Many lay people (and a number of church officials) fail to realise how draining the full-time ordained ministry can be. Six years is the most many people can survive in one place. So moving on is a simple solution.

There are, of course, other unproductive solutions. One is to change the emphasis of your ministry. Instead of persevering in the important and hard tasks of parish leadership and faithful Bible teaching, some try a totally new doctrinal emphasis - from extreme charismatic to extreme liberal; others try new pastoral techniques based on dubious psychology. Most tragic of all is when someone leaves his wife and goes off with another woman. Sadly Roy Clements, a well-known Baptist clergyman, has recently made an exit from his Cambridge church by leaving is wife and going off with another man!

However, the best solution is to take a sabbatical. That is why the pastoral staff at JPC have sabbaticals for three months every seven years. And that is why I was completely away from the church mid-March to mid-June. I am extremely grateful to my colleagues for enabling this to happen - inevitably some of them have had to take on further responsibilities. And particularly I want to thank Jonathan Pryke for his leadership while I have been away.

As the vicar I also have a second period of nearly three months back in Jesmond but not "up front" or directly involved in leadership. I get involved in a number of things behind the scenes in the church; I visit other churches; I get involved in wider church issues; I preach (elsewhere); I do some broadcasting and writing; and, especially, I try to give thought to the future both at Jesmond and further afield. But an important reason why I need to be away a bit longer than three months is this: it is necessary not just that the senior pastor of a church has a break, but that the church has a break from its senior pastor. There needs to be a time interval – a sort of interregnum. The taking of new responsibilities by others in the church is a good thing. And change, if necessary, is more acceptable in the new phase of the church's life that follows the clergyman's return. People are ready for it.

This has been my fourth sabbatical at JPC. I have followed this pattern on each occasion. So what have I been discovering over this period? And what is my thinking now?

The wider world and the UK

First, let me make a brief comment about the wider world. I was privileged in March and April to be able to go, literally, around the world visiting churches and individual leaders in a number of countries. And for the first time on such a journey my wife was able to accompany me. We spent five weeks visiting Toronto (Canada), Los Angeles (USA), Whangerei (New Zealand), Sydney and Cairns (Australia) [Cairns for a two day break and where we were in emergency mode with a cyclone bearing down on us], Tokyo (Japan), Hong Kong (now, China), Johannesburg (South Africa), Cape Town (South Africa) and back to Newcastle.

For us the greatest encouragement was in South Africa where we visited the Church of England in South Africa (CESA). CESA is evangelical and the Anglican church that is not in (technical) communion with the C of E. The "recognized" Anglican church is the Church of the Province of South Africa (CPSA) which is more Anglo-Catholic and liberal. But it is CESA that is growing and thriving.

It was a CESA church, St James, in Kennilworth, Cape Town, where there was a terrible massacre one Sunday evening a few years ago. Gunman stormed into the church and sprayed the huge congregation with bullets. The wife of the administrator of Christ Church, Midrand, Johannesburg (where we were staying and where Bishop Martin Morrison, who visited Jesmond in June, is the rector) was shot and killed that night along with a number of others. Many more were injured. But that experience of suffering has led to spiritual and numerical growth. St James was in great heart when we visited it. So is the denomination as a whole, with congregations increasing in size and also in numbers through church planting.

It is, of course, not unusual to see spiritual health in Africa and other non-Western countries. This is part of a new "shift". Over the last century globally Christianity has expanded from half a billion people in 1900 to two billion in 2000. The significance, however, is not so much in the numbers. These were just keeping up with population trends. The Christian community is still only 33 percent of the world's population, similar to the proportion one hundred years earlier. No! The real change is in the demographic shift that has taken place in global Christianity.

In 1900 Christians in Europe and North America were over 80 percent of that 33 percent of the world's Christian population. At the end of the century that 80 percent had shrunk to less than 40 percent. According to the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, "today it is the non-Western world that boasts the majority - more than 60 percent of the globe's Christian population." Christian life and growth is now in the non-Western world. By contrast the situation in the West, especially in Europe, is generally depressing. There is both heresy and decline - the two being related. We found, however, good things in the West, in non-episcopal churches in the United States and in the Anglican diocese of Sydney, Australia.

But what of the UK? Yes, there are good churches that are faithful and relevant. But overall there is decline and a lack of confidence in the Gospel. On none of my previous sabbaticals have I been so saddened by the situation in Britain and Europe. Nor is this any idealization of the past. It fits in with reliable statistics. The Gallup International Millennium Survey consulted 50,000 people across 60 countries. It discovered, as one headline put it, that "Europe 'leads the world in godlessness'." To the question "How important is God in your life?" and on a scale of 1-10, 97 percent of West Africans, 87 percent of Latin Americans, 83 percent of North Americans had a score of 7-10. But only 49 percent of Europeans had a score of 7-10 (South East Asia had even less – 47 percent). With regard to attending religious services, 82 percent of West Africans attend at least once a week, 47 percent of North Americans, 35 percent of Latin Americans, 27 percent of South East Asians, but only 20 percent of Western Europeans and 14 percent of Eastern Europeans.

Last year's English Church Attendance Survey from Christian Research showed we in England are as bad as anywhere. The Survey showed that only 7.5 percent of the population of England was in church on an average Sunday. In 1979 (using the same measurements) it was 12 percent. And the Survey suggested that the rate of decline is increasing. Things are bad.

Then, another test – TV and radio. Normally I have little time to watch TV or listen to the radio. But I have had more time to do that over the past months. What is now clear to me is that there has been an increase of decadence both in terms of sexual explicitness; in terms of editorial bias against Christian beliefs and Christian moral standards; and in terms of "religious broadcasting". Religious broadcasting often seems to present an inter-faith philosophy (that is, of course, not neutral) with "token" Christians who rarely mention Jesus, and if they do it is seldom as the saviour from sin. The result is a pooling of ignorance, banality and political correctness; low ratings; and then, presumably, programme controllers saying, "We told you so, the public does not want religion on TV or radio."

The eighteenth century

It is, however, no good simply complaining. In my annual reading of Bishop Ryle's Christian Leaders of the 18th Century I have once again been struck by how similar Britain of the 21st century is to Britain – or at any rate, England and Wales - of the 18th century. Immorality and decadence was rife then (see Hogarth's paintings) and the Christian faith was despised. Bishop Butler – a former Bishop of Durham – said that Christianity was becoming "a principal subject for mirth and ridicule." That was no wonder. The Bible was not being taught or preached.

The distinguished lawyer, Blackstone, early in the reign of George III tried to hear every London clergyman who had some sort of a reputation. Ryle reports that "he did not hear a single discourse which had more Christianity in it than the writings of Cicero, and that it would have been impossible for him to discover, from what he heard, whether the preacher were a follower of Confucius, of Mahomet or of Christ!" So what is new? And where there was "religion" in those days, it was often a "religion of Nature" with Jesus subordinate to human thinking. We today would call it a form of "New Agism". Ryle says, "the majority of the bishops … were unfit for their position" while the vast majority of the parochial clergy "seemed determined to know everything except Jesus Christ and him crucified." And "their sermons were so unspeakably and indescribably bad, that it is comforting to reflect they were generally preached to empty benches." And Free Church preachers were no better.

So how did things change? How was it that by the end of the next century the majority of the nation's children were in Sunday School every Sunday?

The answer is that God raised up individuals – not from established leaders at the top of the Church of England or at the top of the "dissenting" movements, but from the bottom. They were mostly ordinary Anglican clergymen, raised up about the same time in various parts of the country. They did God's work in God's way. Ryle summarizes their work as follows:

They did [God's] work in the old apostolic way, by becoming the evangelists of their day. They taught one set of truths. They taught them in the same way, with fire, reality, earnestness, as men fully convinced of what they taught. They taught them in the same spirit, always loving, compassionate, and, like Paul, even weeping, but always bold, unflinching, and nor fearing the face of man. And they taught them on the same plan, always acting on the aggressive; not waiting for sinners to come to them, but going after, and seeking sinners; not sitting idle till sinners offered to repent, but assaulting the high places of ungodliness.

And these men - such as George Whitefield, John Wesley, Grimshaw of Haworth, William Romaine, Daniel Rowlands, John Berridge, Henry Venn, Walker of Truro, Hervey of Weston Flavell, Toplady and Fletcher of Madeley, under God, changed England and Wales. And it was through their preaching. They preached everywhere - inside churches and outside; in their own parishes and in other people's parishes if the gospel demanded it. They preached simply, so that people could understand. They preached fervently – "with fiery zeal, like men who were thoroughly persuaded that what they said was true, and that it was of the utmost importance to your eternal interest to hear it." And what they preached was "eminently doctrinal, positive, dogmatical, and distinct." They were crystal clear that the Bible was to be supreme; that human nature was corrupt, sinful, spiritually dead and in desperate need of saving; that the first step in making men and women good is to show them that they are utterly bad; and the second step is to persuade them of the paradox that doing the best for your soul is when you are convinced that you can do nothing at all, but Christ can.

So this was the context for their teaching and preaching of the "good news" about Jesus Christ. He had done for mankind all that was necessary, in his death on the cross where he bore our guilt and made satisfaction for our sins. He was not just an example, but a sacrifice, "the just for the unjust". They taught that the one thing necessary from men and women is "faith" - simply to trust, thankfully, in the goodness and grace of God in Christ. In this way they can become new beings with new life by the Holy Spirit. And this new life will lead to personal holiness with love for God and love for our neighbour. Finally they taught, as equally true, both God's eternal hatred of sin and God's love for the sinner. They never failed to teach about the wonder of heaven or the awfulness of hell.

So these were the truths they taught. And as people responded under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, they and the country were changed.

The "Bondage of the Will"

Isn't this what we need at the start of this new Millennium? From my reading over my Sabbatical I have come to the conclusion that it is not just the world that is decadent. Christians are as well. We have slipped – nor is it just "them" (the multi-faith, sexually permissive, ultra-feminist, liberal Christians), but "us". I was shocked to discover that in America, according to the Barna Research Group, while 23 percent of married non-Christians get divorced, it is 27 percent of "born again" Christians (4 percent more). And in terms of other behaviours there is no great difference between "born again" Christians and non-Christians.

Then there is basic theology. Over the past months, among other things, I have been reading some of the works of the 16th Reformers including the Anglican Book of Homilies. This is a foundation document of the Church of England, written mostly by Cranmer and Jewel, referred to in the 39 Articles but now out of print and unobtainable.

From my reading it is evident how much of contemporary so-called "evangelicalism" seems to bear little relationship to what our forefathers taught (and died for). Take Luther's Bondage of the Will. It is an aggressive and polemical book – an attack on Erasmus. Today we would all be far more polite. But he is teaching simple biblical theology. He is explaining the absolute sovereignty of God. God is in control. So all the sad (and pathetic) individuals that were (and are) giving corrupt leadership in the world, and, yes, the church are totally under God's control. Nothing happens without his ordering. Nor says Luther should we be surprised at the mess we are in. It is due to the fact that the human will just cannot do good, of itself. It is "in bondage" to selfishness and sin. Only if God acts, is there any hope. But the good news is, and this cannot be overstressed, God has acted. That is why the historical material of the Bible is so important. And God has acted to "save". There is hope - in Christ, but only in Christ, on Calvary and through faith in him. And that action is the most important thing in the history of the Universe.

That is what Luther, Calvin and Cranmer actually believed. But many of us today, it seems, only "half-believe" it, if at all. At least, it often does not undergird our world-view. Our thinking, our priorities and our values are too often conditioned by secular views. Nor is that surprising when, according to Barna, "the average Christian spends more time watching television in one evening than he or she spends reading the Bible during the entire week." The result is that "when asked to describe the ends they live for, the top items most American Christians reported were good health, a successful career, a comfortable lifestyle, and a functional family. The average Christian assumes that when we are happy, God is happy." And "a large majority of Christians contend that the true meaning of our earthly existence is simply to enjoy life and reap as much fulfilment as we can from our daily pursuits." I am sure similar figures could be found for the UK. But this is so different from St Paul who wanted "to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings" (Philippians 3.15).

The way ahead

What then is the way ahead? I am convinced that there needs to be a new consciousness developed among Christians in the United Kingdom. In the months that lie ahead I hope to be able to spell all this out a little more. This Coloured Supplement is just to set the context and explain the needs.

First, there needs to be a new consciousness about our spiritual needs, both personal and social. I will not elaborate on specific social issues such as the Christian Institute is rightly dealing with, nor on the more "systemic" social issues – issues in the NHS, education, business, the police, even the armed forces and certainly the Government. Nor are these unconnected with our spiritual malaise. But if the only hope for all these needs is ultimately from spiritual revival and a work of the Holy Spirit, prayer is the number one requirement – believing prayer. Jesus taught that the Holy Spirit is given as men and women pray (Luke 11.12).

Secondly, there needs to be a new consciousness about the need for us all – not just clergy and church workers, but especially lay people to talk to their friends, families and colleagues about God, his truth, his purposes and his love. For that to happen, in a situation where even many good Christian people are biblically illiterate, there needs to be a programme of "biblical literacy" for all.

Thirdly, there needs to be a new consciousness about the need for leadership development for the church (but also for the world). At the start of the millennium there is a terrible dearth of good, principled leadership. That is a consequence of the current ideology of relativism where all views are right and nothing is wrong. Good leaders, however, have to believe on key occasions that they are right and others are wrong. If you lead by simply following public opinion, that, of course, is not leadership but "followership". That is fine if the crowd is always right. According to the Bible, however, the crowd will more often than not be wrong. We need to train leaders, who are more than just teachers. But Christian leaders must be "biblically literate" as a minimum.

Fourthly, there needs to be a new consciousness about alternative structures for evangelism. The parochial structure of the Church of England, good for the past, is now inhibiting evangelism. Evangelism in the modern, suburban and metropolitan world cannot be territorial. You don't just relate (and so talk) to people from a small geographical area. You relate through networks that have to do with work, leisure, special interests, sport and families across whole regions, such as Tyneside. Our individual evangelism, therefore, needs to follow these networks as we talk with people we know and with whom we have influence. A serious programme of evangelism, in this situation, will mean new structures. These are evolving in other parts of the world where churches are growing. We need to learn from them.

Finally, there needs to be a new consciousness about the family – and the married family. The Christian family - understood as a father and mother committed together for life, in a relationship recognized by the State – has always been the "base" unit of the Church. It has been the "church in the house". We need encourage such families, and as a church make better provision for the role Christian parents have in the Christian nurture of their children – a role that cannot always be delegated. I believe we need a new consciousness along all these lines.

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