Singing the Lord’s song in a strange land

by Tom Stuckey

The whole world is passing through a huge paradigm shift the likes of which have not been seen for generations. What is the Spirit saying to the Churches in Britain and to the Methodist Church in particular? In my new book I contend that Britain is a modern Babylon where mammon reigns. The Church has unconsciously absorbed the values of Babylon into its structures and strategies with the result that it has ceased to be prophetic and become a public utility offering cheap grace to a consumer public looking for peace and security in troubled times.

BABYLON

Today we serve the god of consumerism and worship him in our cathedral-like shopping malls. Babylon had its ziggurats. In London we demonstrate our delight in the money god in the profusion of the towering of skyscrapers monstrously designed to shock and awe.  Babylon is both a city and a Whore, a term used to signify luxury, sensuality, sexuality, seduction and allure. Although her appearance in the book of Revelation is magnificent (Rev 17), she is not to be trusted. She rides upon a beast of corruption. She is a celebrity who loves to be looked at yet takes even greater delight in gazing at herself.  She is the mythological origin of the ‘selfie’. The message of Revelation is clear. Beware lest you are beguiled by her charms and drawn into the nihilism which she personifies.

THE BABYLONIAN CAPTIVITY OF THE CHURCH

Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet with this title in October 1520. In it he attacked ‘indulgences’. These bits of paper were sold to enhance the glory of the papacy by raising money for the building of St Peter’s. They were expressions of ‘cheap grace’ giving  people a ‘feel good’ experience without requiring discipleship.

John Hull gave us a devastating critique of the Church in Britain. ‘We looked for a mission-shaped church but what we found was a church-shaped mission.’[1] The seeking of justice for people and the environment is at the bottom of the agenda of most churches. This is because the culture of Babylon has so permeated the Church that we cannot confront the sins of Babylon without confronting ourselves. Words and noise are the background music of a consumer society. Babylon has invaded the worship of our churches. Boredom is the enemy so we fill the time with image, song, visuals, clips, chat and a short snappy address. The worshippers have become a consumer audience.

James Laney in a sermon about Christian identity in a comfortable Babylon says ‘When we look back at the history of the Church, every time we see that the Church has become captive to the dominant identity of its society, every time it has become comfortable with its role in culture, it has lost its universality. With the loss of universality, it has lost the power to create, not merely to evangelize, but also the power to become renewed.’[2]

 METHODISM

Methodism has singularly failed to theologically address this deluding Babylonian culture which has almost totally infiltrated our church. Without the corrective of prophetic theology we have embraced the managerial and mechanical solutions of Babylon.  Over the past couple of decades we have been shifting the furniture of worship and tinkering with our structures. Martin Percy looking in at British Methodism is puzzled by our heavy organizational baggage and ecclesiastical civil service. He comments that ‘our bureaucracy is stifling our democracy and democracy has triumphed over theocracy’.[3]

The Babylonian captivity has robbed Methodism of its ‘holiness’.  ‘Know your disease! Know your cure!’ was the dictum John Wesley employed. His diagnosis of humanity’s problem was that the image of God within had become distorted. Although reason and practical activity were important for him he believed that only the transcendent power of God’s grace could work the cure.

My new book entitled  ‘Singing the Lord’s song in a Strange Land’ will be launched at Conference. It will bring a theological critique to the Church in Britain with a particular reference to Methodism.  Does Methodism have a vibrant future?  Not if we continue as we are!

[1] John Hull, Mission-Shaped Church: A Theological Response, SCM Press, 2006, p.36.

[2] James Laney, ‘Our New Identity’, in Logan, Theology and Evangelism in the Wesleyan Heritage, Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994, p.178.

[3] Martyn Percy, ‘Back to the Future: A Search for a Thoroughly Modern Methodist Ecclesiology’, found in C. Marsh, B. Beck, H. Wareing and A. Shier-Jones (eds), Unmasking Methodist Theology, Continuum, 2004, p.207.

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3 thoughts on “Singing the Lord’s song in a strange land”

  1. Tom thank you for your words that are often challenging and provocative! I’m not entirely sure that I share your overly pessimistic view of the Methodist Church. I accept that the church must always be wary of the captivity to culture and the possibility of the Gospel becoming accommodated to the social mores of the time lest our message become cheap grace. However, i do believe this year, through the gift of our Presidency (Roger and Rachel), we have been reminded of a deeper expression of discipleship. The search for holiness, both inward and outward, and its public expression in the quest for justice – this was a much needed gift and challenge to the Connexion and if it is embodied in our life and practice, then we shall be a much more prophetic, radical and engaged church that is very likely to be an irritant to those who wield power and influence. I do look forward to reading your book.

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  2. The Methodist Church in the UK has lost 100,000 in membership and worship attendance over 12 years. A large proportion of congregations is aged over 60 and we have largely lost two generations. Of the families that do come, how many are there just so that they qualify for the local church secondary school and how many of the few teenagers will return after they have learnt to question at university? At what point do we acknowledge that things are not working? But we persist with the traditional service, half of which is taken up by the sermon, and the rest revolves around the sermon. Yet, how many of the congregation could tell you by Wednesday what the theme of the sermon was, let alone any one of the three points made in it?

    Confucius said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” It takes imagination and a lot more effort in preparation to lead a service that is illustrated and/or allows the congregation to participate in more than just singing hymns. Yet here we have a senior member of the church denigrating such efforts as pandering to consumerism and entertaining the congregation.

    We don’t want people to be able to write an essay on doctrine at the end of a church service. We want them to deepen their relationship with God. We have to give people food for the soul, not just food for the mind. People remember how they were made to feel in a service long after they’ve forgotten most of what they heard. It’s more important to make spiritual progress than to understand more about theology. Spiritual progress is more likely to happen, if people have been actively involved in the service, and been challenged to make a response.

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