For the majority of my lifetime the Church in the Western World has been going through an identity crisis. Participation in ‘organised religion’ has been on the decline and ‘church’ has been seen to be more and more irrelevant to the lives of individuals. Of course there are notable exceptions, but for denominations like the United Reformed Church, we seem to be ‘managing decline’ rather than planning for growth. The birth of our denomination in 1972, with the union of Congregationalists and Presbyterians, was expected to be the impetus for widespread union between other major denominations – but this did not happen. Now, in 2015, we face challenging questions: Why are we still here? What is special about the URC? What is the Sprit saying to the Church?
The denomination is currently asking itself these very questions. A two-fold note of realism undergirds the discussion: realism about the present state of the United Reformed Church, and realism about the God in whom we put our trust.
There has to be a realism about declining numbers and the tiredness felt by many congregations, as people face the changing situations in which the Church finds herself. Ministers and lay leaders speak of the increasing stresses they have to bear, being challenged to look after more and more smaller congregations.
However, there must also be another note of realism, that is the realism about who God is, the God who continues to be greater than we can dream of or imagine. If we take God seriously and understand our history as part of the remarkable story of God’s faithfulness with the people of God, how can we not be filled with hope about the future? The danger of the pressures of decline is that we start to lose confidence in the Gospel.
In the discussions about the future of the Church, the General Assembly of the URC believes that we have come to the point where we want to affirm the future of the Church and of the United Reformed Church in particular. The Mission Committee has helpfully pointed to the need to regain confidence in our faith and is offering further work on developing discipleship. If we take the first note of realism, to take such a step as this might seem like folly. Are we not just gently declining and should we not just be realistic about this and plan for the Church’s end? But the Church needs to look to the second note of realism, about the faithful God, revealed in Jesus Christ once for all time, giving people power through the Holy Spirit. General Assembly has been led to the affirmation of the future of the United Reformed Church, as part of the wider body of Christ, filled with the Spirit, a visible sign of God in the world.
Underlying this affirmation is a renewed trust in the significance of the Holy Trinity in giving life to and shaping the Church, and not only this, but offering, as has been done over many centuries, life and freedom for the world. The significance of the Trinity lies in the personal relational nature of the three-fold God in whom we trust. In God we become who we are meant to be, fully human, in relationship to God and to one another. The gift of this relationship is part of the gift we offer to the world, and stands in contrast to the functional and broken view of the world which so often seems to prevail. The future of the Church depends on participation in the life of God, Source, Guide and Goal of all that is, realised in each local gathering of Christians offering good news to a troubled world.
What do you think the Spirit is saying to the Church?
With love and prayers
Russell J Furley-Smith