Monday, March 3, 2014

Milk Powder is Bad for Christian Growth

I have had a lovely if tiring weekend. Saturday morning my family I travelled to Timaru (South Canterbury) for a collation service for the new Archdeacon of South Canterbury (an eager to please person who in a moment of weakness said Yes to the Bishop's invitation). A lovely excursion followed in the middle of the afternoon to visit family camping at Lake Clearwater in the foothills of the alps behind Ashburton before presenting ourselves at St Stephen's Ashburton for the late afternoon collation service for Rosie Staite as the new lay Archdeacon of Mid Canterbury. All that travelling was in gorgeous sunshine, as was Sunday's excursion to Cheviot in North Canterbury.

I had a fascinating conversation in the course of these travels with a bloke who lamented lowness of congregational numbers and offered a reason for them. "People don't need God in their lives these days." I think my conversation partner is putting his finger on something which may take a bit of courage for the church to face up to.

In commercial terms, we have a product (the gospel) which by definition is good news for people in poor circumstances. If those poor circumstances cease to exist, if people don't feel a great need to cry out to God for help (salvation), then it is no wonder that our 'business' is feeling the squeeze, represented by lowered attendances in many places, or, in some places where attendance is reasonable, by observation that the congregation is aging and not replacing itself with younger generations.

Now much more could be said about this state of affairs and no pretence is being made that in the above two paragraphs I have covered every angle of current church life ith its varied hues of growth, decline and stability. But sticking with the insight that at least one significant factor in our situation is people's loss of a sense of need of God, it is intriguing - to me at least - that Saturday's Press carried a major article on our 'rockstar' economy. The gist of the article is that the world, but especially China, wants our farmyard products, particularly milk powder, with demands not previously experienced. As one of China's farms, we can scarcely keep up. One figure is startling,

"In a single year, New Zealand's exports to China leapt a mind-boggling 45 per cent, increasing by a whole $3.1 billion to $10b, making China now our biggest international customer."

That is huge. No wonder the farming country we travelled through looked so prosperous (e.g. lots of new houses). No wonder that after six years in government, the National Party is as strong in the polls as ever. The good times are rolling on. Faced with a decision whether to go shopping on Sunday for a new car or a new boat, or even both, why would people feel a need to honour God in worship, let alone seek God's help for unmet needs?

That some people have a need for God in their lives and are finding God in the context of church was a spontaneously emerging theme from some impromptu testimonies at an evening service I was part of at the weekend's end. Excellent! But that does not change the question relating to the broad sweep of congregational life in China's Farms Inc (South Pacific division): how do we engage our whole society with the gospel in an age of plenty?

I am delighted that our economy is growing but I feel compelled to conclude that milk powder is bad for the growth of the gospel!


Pageantmaster said...

Many congratulations Peter+ - may your ministry flourish [the current bon mot I hear].

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Pageantmaster :)

Shirley said...

I am not so sure about the good times you speak of Peter, looks can be deceiving.

Peter Carrell said...

Yes, Shirley, they can be deceiving. Clearly even 95% employment (to cite but one aspect of economic well-being) leaves 5% not experiencing the good times ...

liturgy said...

Thanks for some important points here, Peter.

Has the church "undersold" the importance, value, need, significance, potency of giving thanks ("eucharist")?



Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco
Most likely! But, it is a fraught subject in (at least) this way (re one aspect of wealth): many in the churches are concerned about the growth of dairy farming re changes to landscape, changes to water quality (and quantity left over for other uses), so (perhaps) it has been tricky to offer an unqualified thanks to God for our material growth as a nation since not all welcome it.

Alongside your important point about giving thanks could lie other questions: have we offered an approach to faith which permeates all aspects of life: need and plenty, life and death, youthful exuberance and the weariness of aging, health and sickness? Could this be measured (say) by (what I percieve as) fewer occasions on which grace is said before meals ...

Much to ponder :)

James Stewart said...

Yes Peter, I agree that in prosperous times people do not tend to seek God; in my experience it is often in extremis of circumstance that the non-Christian may turn (or Christian prodigal return) to the church. But, in many of our churches, what do they get when they do so? An easy "gospel" accommodated to the world's agenda which does not identify the cause of spiritual hunger and unhappiness (sin), nor proffer the only remedy for such a state: submission to Christ through Word and Sacrament and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. IMO it is in part the "product" we are offering that in the long run turns people away empty. In a related and pertinent theme of why churches lose their youth, perhaps you may like to see

Much food for thought.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi James
There is food for thought in the link.

I see three factors (at least) coming together in growing churches:
- challenge
- great worship (which includes but is not confined to renewed commitment to classic liturgy, (but that, in my experience, needs to be done well)
- relevance (not in the sense of cultural accommodation, but in the sense that what I experience in the gathering of the church I can related to my experience of the world between gatherings).

Peter Carrell said...

Hi James
There is food for thought in the link.

I see three factors (at least) coming together in growing churches:
- challenge
- great worship (which includes but is not confined to renewed commitment to classic liturgy, (but that, in my experience, needs to be done well)
- relevance (not in the sense of cultural accommodation, but in the sense that what I experience in the gathering of the church I can related to my experience of the world between gatherings).

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter, as a south canterburian we are very grateful you are eager to please if that is any encouragement. there is much need here for an independent, educated, humble and passionate voice such as yourself.

Re milk powder. It has been interesting for rme. I grew up in south canterbury but spent many years in Wellington attending Churton Park Anglican Church before coming back here several years ago.

I agree with concept of wealth making people see less need for God in their lives. Yet the church I used to attend was in a wealthy area (although not all were well off) and was very vibrant and alive. What I encounter in this area is slightly different, it is as though a bit like Holy Trinity Brompton's book title people see church (especially those under 45) as being irrelevant.

I admire the amazing pastoral care in this area (it is indeed amazing). Passionate spirituality is low. Those in the church are reluctant to talk about their faith in and outside of the church and while I am sure many are dedicated to private prayer, everybody participating in praying (such as in a group) is rarely practiced.

These are just my observations and I think a reflection of the fact many in the church here grew up in a society where everyone attended church but profession of faith itself was a private matter.

So.... all the best with your new role (smile)...

Seriously, as a person growing up in a traditional church and moving to a more charismatic one; I needed to learn how to pray in a group and not be embarassed, I valued someone showing me how to pray for others, I witnessed how gifts of the spirit (such as words of knowledge) used within the structure of a church spoke to people's hearts and I attended groups where we actually practiced these things in a safe envirnoment, including preaching and prophecy;, and I witnessed how the testimony of others in the church encouraged us all.

And so my personal faith grew and alongside it the confidence to share with the congregation my own faith journey, a willingness to receive prayer (I was in there nearly every week) and a desire to share my faith with others outside our church.

Peter Carrell said...

Dear Anonymous
The general rule here is that comments should come with a name but I will make an exception here.

Thank you for your kind words. There is a little bit of mock irony in my self-description: I am sure some do not find me eager to please and wish I was more co-operative.

Yes, there definitely are exceptions where wealth/passionate spirituality are concerned but I think the general rule holds good, that when economic times for a country are going well, there are more distractions on Sunday mornings and at least one or three less compelling reasons to seek God.

What you say about South Canterbury is noted. In my own experience of living in different regions of NZ, there are differences to the expressions of Christianity in each region. Overlaid, of course, with some general Kiwi Christian culture characteristics!