It’s about abundant life, not hell-avoidance

by
06 October 2017

The Church should rethink its purpose and change the way churches are used accordingly, says Sam Wells

ST JAMES, WEST HAMPSTEAD

Holistic practice: the Sheriff Centre, a social enterprise at St James’s, West Hampstead, in London, which runs a main-branch post office, a café, soft play area, and a debt advice service

Holistic practice: the Sheriff Centre, a social enterprise at St James’s, West Hampstead, in London, which runs a main-branch post office, a caf...

“I CAME that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10). Christians don’t have to look far for a mission statement for the Church. Living abundant life.

Jesus is our model of abundant life; his life, death and resurrection chart the transformation from the scarcity of sin and death to the ab­un­dance of healing and resur­rection; he longs to bring all humankind into reconciled and flourishing relationship with God, one another, themselves, and all creation.

Discipleship describes inhabiting that abundant life. Ministry involves building up the Church to embody that abundant life. Mission names the ways that abundant life is prac­tised, shared, and discovered in the world at large.

So far so good. Nothing not to like. So, as doctors say, what seems to be the problem? Well, round about 1860, something important began to change. People started to stop believing in hell. It was on both philosophical and moral grounds. They “did the math” and worked out that, while ten million years of roasting in hell seemed in order for the most unspeakable sinners, ten million is less than a drop in the ocean compared with eternity.

Meanwhile, the agonies and hor­rors of hell seem hard to recon­cile with the grace and mercy of God. There is simply no imaginable sin, or even evil, that merits eternal punishment when one realises eternity is infinitely longer than 50 billion years; and a God who doesn’t grasp that seems a very different sort of God from the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Salvation is not fundamentally to be conceived as enabling people to escape from the labours of life and the horrors of hell to the halcyon joys of heaven. Jesus did not funda­mentally come to redirect us from judgement and oblivion to safety and sublime bliss.

Instead, God always purposed to be in relationship with us and foster our relationship with one another and creation. Jesus came to embody that purpose, to encounter and chal­lenge all that inhibits it, to withstand and demonstrate the overcoming of those obstructions, and to restore that purpose in perpetual promise.

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IT TAKES a while to comprehend just how much of a revolution in the Christian theological imagination arises when we quietly let go of the evading-eternal-hell model of church. There are two closely re­­lated dimensions.

First, the central purpose of church needs a rethink. Church can no longer be principally a mechan­ism for delivering people from the perils of damnation to the joys of the Elysian Fields. God is no longer an instrument for conveying us up­­stairs rather than downstairs. God is not fundamentally a means to the end of securing our eternal survival and bliss. God is an end: “If I love thee for thyself alone, then give me thyself alone.”

The central purpose of the Church is no longer to reconcile people to God, so that their eternal salvation will no longer be in jeop­ardy: it is to invite people to enjoy God just as God enjoys them. God embraces them for their own sake, not for some ulterior purpose: evan­gelism means inviting people to em­­brace God likewise.

Second, the attitude of church to world needs to change. From the evading-hell perspective, the world is characterised by the flesh and pervaded by the devil; so worldly existence is largely to be spent es­­caping the earthly realities around us and encouraging others to do so. The Church offers sanctuary, heav­enly medicine, protection, and training for avoiding earthly snares and temptations.

But a different view of God leads to an alternative understanding of the world. No longer is life about dodging the flesh of this world to merit the spirit of the next. Now the world has a validity of its own. All has not been lost in the Fall. The Holy Spirit is doing surprising, ex­­uberant, and plentiful things in the world.

The Church is called not simply to guide people’s escape from the world, but to celebrate creation, en­­joy culture, and share in flourishing life. The evading-hell approach tends to concentrate on how to con­vey to the maximum number of people the specific benefits secured by Christ’s Passion, so as to ensure that those people seek those benefits and are accordingly delivered unto heaven.

The abundant-life approach, by contrast, seeks to shape communi­ties whose habits and practices anti­cipate and portray the life of God’s kingdom.

For the most part, however, our churches are still set up to achieve the goal of evading hell. We still take people out of the world for an in­­tense hour or two a week to be transported to heaven, and thus to be restored, or fuelled, or inspired to face the challenges of their lives. We tend to define spirituality in tension with and superior opposition to materiality. We regard true de­­votion as be­­ing taken away from the world, or as silent sec­lusion from the world.

We have a banking model of mission which assumes that we need to stock up on scriptural and theological know­ledge, and then in mission com­municate as much of that know­ledge as we can to unwary people who, by definition as part of the world, are characterised only by their lack of such knowledge and the godliness that we take to come with it.

 

I WANT to outline a couple of ways in which, I believe, the institutional character of the Church might be reformed to reflect and advance more fully this notion of salvation as abundant life.

First, the Church should be about modelling and making possible forms of social relationship not found elsewhere. It should not be about keeping teenagers occupied and entertained until eventually and inevitably they lose interest; it should be about capturing their im­­agination with a form of social prac­tice so authentic and so inspir­ing that, instead of being embar­rassed that their Church is so off the pace, they are, instead, attracted by a community whose form of relating is striding boldly ahead of their culture rather than dragging grudg­ingly behind it.

Christianity caught on in the second and third centuries because it created institutions that gave people possibilities and opportun­ities that the rest of the world had yet to imagine. That’s what Chris­tianity originally was: a revolution­ary idea that took institutional form. That’s what it needs to become again.

Here’s a question: when did secu­lar business schools start study­ing and teaching social entrepreneur­ship? Answer: about the time the Church stopped studying and prac­tising and being the best example of it.

Second, there needs to be a re­­formation in how the Church uses its buildings. Churches in this country were, in most cases, built with the benefaction of the local squire to address the spiritual aspect of an established community. In practice, in addition to their many aesthetic and liturgical qualities, they operated to a significant degree as an assertion of existing hier­archies and an imposition of social control.

Today, they are in danger because the noblesse are not so obliged when it comes to replacing the roof every second generation and providing a third son of the household to be the vicar, and the community of dis­ciples is not sufficiently extensive, or wealthy, or generous to step in.

But these church buildings should never have come to be seen simply as set-apart places of retreat to facilitate the once-weekly eleva­tion of the soul of the few to the throne of heaven. They must be regarded as places of encounter for the whole neighbourhood, with a mission to be a blessing to anyone and everyone who resides or spends time there.

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The architecture may be glorious, and there’s no reason why the ex­­ternal appearances need change sig­nificantly, but the priority intern­ally should be as a place that ad­­vances abundant life locally, within which liturgical worship should take an honoured but not unduly privil­eged place. If a local church finds itself in decline, but has lost its vocation to be a blessing to every member of its community, it has only itself to blame.

In the histor­ical context I have described, churches could largely rely on there being such a thing as a local community, and the church could capitalise on its rhythm and stability by inviting it to share in the round of Christ­mas, Mothering Sunday, Easter, Roga­tion, the parish fête, and Harvest. But today such community is much harder to come by, and the church needs to step in with a hol­istic prac­tice of its own.

That means, as I have said, assuming its congregational life will be augmented by a charitable arm, whether entirely voluntary or a mix­ture of salaried and voluntary, which in most cases will be con­cerned primarily with cultivating the community’s assets. It means making its building available and encouraging its use for cultural and artistic events that foster creativity, expression and beauty, thus por­traying flourishing life. And it means, in many cases, developing sources of income based on the site which offer employment and gen­erate profit and make the organ­isation sustainable.

What I’m describing is trans­forming church buildings — under-used, seen as moribund, and a drain on resources (in other words, a metaphor for the whole Church) — into dynamic centres of abundant life, receiving, evidencing, dwelling in, and sharing forms of social flourishing, and being a blessing to, their neighbourhood.

I’m not talking about a revolu­tion, but I suspect that I am talking about a reformation. And, at root, I’m describing what happens when we cease to use God as a device for acquiring the ultimate goods that we can’t secure for ourselves, and start to adore and imitate the God who in Jesus models, offers, and advances abundant life, now and for ever­more.

The Revd Dr Sam Wells is the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

 

This article is a shortened and edited version of his lecture “Reform­ing Church”, delivered on Monday as part of the “Reformation” lecture series at St Martin-in-the-Fields. For a podcast of the full lecture and for details of other lectures in the series, visit www.smitf.org. The lectures are free and open to all.

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