Back to the Future
The New Year may start officially on January 1st but in practice for many people it comes at the beginning of September. That’s the case for all of those who study and work in education (which is a lot of people in this country) and also for those involved in the life of churches (which is still a lot of people in this country). Even for those whose work or life does not reflect this nation’s agricultural inheritance (‘all is safely gathered in’) the end of the summer holidays is a big moment in the year.
One thing you can be sure of is that things will not be the same as they were last September, whether for good or ill. Church members have a habit of informing their ministers that ‘we are all getting older here you know’, though none of them seem to be doing so at a rate greater than one day at a time. Also, it would be pretty spooky to find yourself as Minister of a congregation where no one aged a day. I don’t think I like that idea. (Part of the reasoning behind running the Emmaus course in the Billericay congregation is to give people the opportunity to re-look at the basics of the Christian faith, not relying on childhood memories but seeing it anew from an adult perspective.)
The big challenge for Christians seems to be that things appear to change in the society around us at a rate greater than that within the life of the churches. On one level that is helpful because churches become places where you can find some sense of stability in the midst of a constantly changing world. On the other hand, if we are not careful, churches become places so out of step with their communities that they come to seem irrelevant to the vast majority of the population, including the children, family and friends of those involved in congregational life. Consider, for example, the technology taken for granted in the school environment for learning and in the business setting, and then compare that to what goes on (or not) in churches.
A slogan which is bandied about in Reformed Church circles goes thus: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda, which can be translated ‘The church reformed is always to be reformed’. To put it another way, ‘real’ Reformed churches are always reforming. So a Reformed church that welcomes another September does so ready to look at it differently to the way it did so the previous September, because the world has changed since last September, and it is prepared to do some things differently as a result. Of course that does not mean everything in church life just get thrown up in the air on an annual basis. That would represent more change than most of us could cope with and stay sane.
At the same time there are not many things in church life that we absolutely have to do in the way we do them today or did them yesterday. The enduring focus on Jesus Christ, who is described as: “the same yesterday, today and for ever” (Hebrews 13: 8) gives us our essential stability. The business of the Church, responding to Jesus, is to love God and to love our neighbour. The ways in which we choose to do these things are many and various, looking to our traditions and responding to the situation in which we find ourselves today. And good news, God has given us another year in which to do so.