There’s been a lot of talk in evangelical churches over the last few years – particularly charismatic evangelical churches – about the importance of community engagement. From the conference podium to the bookstall, church leaders are bombarded by the message of social transformation as the new imperative of their mission. Twenty years ago, perhaps, some of this thinking would have been considered suspiciously liberal and held at several motorways’ length. We can be thankful that this is no longer the case, and that churches which previously ignored the social impact of the Gospel are now seeing how essential it is to the disciple-making fullness of the Great Commission. Calls now abound to serve the city, to seek its peace and prosperity, to be a blessing to it, to get involved within it, regardless of the tangible evangelistic harvest, because doing good is simply what Christians do. This is very true, and this message is still in need of full implementation right across the pews and pulpits of this country. However, what many seem to have forgotten is that this is not a new idea. We’ve been here before, in the very churches from which we fled – churches which, at their worst, cherished their place in and for the public community so much so that they forgot to keep converting it.
Like I said, on the day of the Referendum I was thinking about Anglicanism.
There is such a thing as true Anglicanism, the ‘dream’ of Anglicanism, like the dream of Rome. It may no longer exist, except in flickering embers, and it may be on an irreversible decline, but its presence is still there, calling to us and teaching us from across the ages, of what it might have been, and could still be, by God’s grace. I happened to be travelling around Derbyshire on the day of the Referendum. I was taking in the character of the many lovely villages of the Peak District. And it's not as though I hadn’t noticed this before, but I became re-astonished at just how important the Church once was in the communities of these small rural villages and towns. Perhaps some would argue these churches still exert a significant influence because they have a Foodbank, a Fairtrade stand, and a recent moderately attended violin concert. These things are good. Occasionally they are great. But they are not on the kind of level of what I was thinking. There is a difference between being a commendable part of a community and being the heartbeat of the community. That the church was once the unquestioned heartbeat of the community is illustrated by both geography and architecture. In most cases these church buildings are, quite simply, colossal. They are usually wildly out of proportion with the average size of any other building in the community, and plonked right there in the centre of it all – almost embarrassingly so, to our enlightened secular age.
But just in case you begin to get overly Romantic about the ongoing power of the Church on the basis of centuries-old town planning, it’s important that you step inside one of these church buildings today. When you do, if you have any inkling of the importance of the Gospel for this generation, you ought to get a familiar sinking feeling. It’s the one I often get whenever I enter a quiet Anglican church, particularly a rural one. It’s all very familiar, and all very strange. But it’s the wrong kind of familiar and the wrong kind of strange. The leaflets, the scents, the hymn books, the shadow-font posters, the candles-for-sale, the artifact-laden walls, and the signs which tell you how much it costs each week to upkeep the church (usually, two or three hundred pounds), followed by the familiar exhortation: “please give generously”. Once upon a time, the idea of a non-Christian being exhorted to “give generously” on the basis of Scripture would have seemed absurd to a good Anglican; now, it seems like an imperative. Maintenance has become the mission.
All in all, these things you tend to see when stepping inside the church seem to be the things (indeed, the things) that indicate the church’s heart. It becomes clear that the present form of this has virtually nothing to do with the dynamic vision that first led this building to be built, either in this village or the one two miles down the road. There will always be exceptions, but for far too many of these churches, the architectural heritage itself seems to be the only “good news” on offer. Look! Our church is in the shape of an octagon! Look! Ours has a Norman font! It’s as though there is some bizarre expectation that the fleeting tourists who pop their heads into these quiet spaces during the average weekday might suddenly accept Christ after having read the historical description of the seventeenth-century baptismal font. And if the font doesn't bring new life to their souls, then surely a postcard and/or item of stationary for a substantial suggested donation surely will! Come and buy a lovely pencil which says ‘All Saints Church, Youlgreave’ on it. It was made in 1997, which gives it real character! Perhaps when they return home from their rural village holiday they can say to their friends: Look! I went to All Saints Church, Youlgreave! This pencil proves it. Thus, I think you’ll agree that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only name under heaven by which humanity may be saved. Who’s with me…?
Now I know they will also have little booklets and leaflets in amongst the keyrings which do tell something of the Gospel story. But this is just the problem. You have to go looking for it. The impression on the outsider is that this information about what God has done for the world is no longer the central point of why this building and community seems to exist in the first place.
This is precisely why charismatic evangelical churches ought to know what they intend for the long haul when they jump headlong into the buzz of “social impact” and “community engagement”. How far do you go? What do you end up endorsing? Who sets the rules of this “community” we’re supposed to be “engaging”? What is our distinct relationship within it? For the Church, Jesus is always going to be Lord, and we’re always going to have to tell people that. That should be enough to cause us (and them) a problem. And one of the main facets of this problem is that this message of Jesus’ lordship is always going to be something that cannot be contained within any human political system this side of eternity. Indeed, political encapsulation is usually the slow death of the Gospel. Examples from church history abound. This is why it’s still very much up for debate whether such a civic vision as we saw in Anglicanism’s heyday is even possible, or whether it ever truly “worked” beneath the surface of other historical contingencies connected with Empire, economy, social class, and other ideologies of social meaning. But even so, every now and then, we should allow ourselves to be re-stirred by what was once attempted in the great Anglican vision, and what could again (perhaps) be imagined, if we could fit all our footnotes on board without sinking the ship.
In all this, I keep thinking how much we probably need to read more Augustine. At least just to think with/through/beyond him in relation to how Christians can think rightly about the civic question. Of course, Augustine’s questions are not our questions, and – though he is often looked to as the political theologian par excellence – his theopolitical thought was not systematic or normative. His day was still the honeymoon of Christendom and he had to think in and for that day. Political and civic engagement seemed to be inescapable from what it meant to be a Christian at that time. His ‘just war’ doctrine, for example, seems to have come into being not because he imagined it in the abstract for all eras, but because Rome was being attacked by the Visigoths there and then and he had to work out whether it was ok for the Christians to fight in the army or not, or Christian Rome would be no more. Augustine couldn't just shrug his shoulders and say “it’s a state issue”. For him, the future of the public square and civic good was a Gospel issue. And he managed to do and say it all without idolising human culture or politics, maintaining the key distinction between the City of God and the City of Man.
For one thing, evangelical political apathy tends to create bad citizens. Sometimes being a bad citizen can be a good thing (as in any culture which forbids the worship and proclamation of Christ), but this is not a free pass to utilise the structures of the world when and how we see fit, only to toss them away in a theological landfill once we’re done with them. Otherwise, we don’t seem all that different from city looters in the midst of a crisis. We take what we can because we know the city has fallen and has no mastery over us. The Israelites “plundered” the Egyptians, remember, in response to a specific command from God, not a thoughtless free-for-all crime wave. Surely Jesus taught us to be a little more loving and discerning than descending to political looting. Nonetheless, we must not lose sight of his radical political call, either. Our city here is not lasting (Heb. 13:14) and our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), even though – paradoxically – the things we do in and for the world still matter. The Sermon on the Mount would probably be a waste of time if this wasn’t the case. And many political theologians down the ages have seen the Sermon on the Mount as precisely the mandate for the church both for and before the world. After all, the fact that the church is called to be ‘a city on a hill’ (Matt. 5:14) means that it is still very much somewhere in the world. It’s not levitating six inches above the ground, it’s on a hill. At the very least, we must take heed of this age-old New Testament tension, and allow it to stir us into thoughtful action rather than actionless thought.
Clearly, proclamation and political/public engagement need not always be mutually exclusive options. They always lean upon one another in some way or another. But the church does need to know what it must do now, in this generation, and this will likely require an edge. And a pretty sharp one, at that. Perhaps if God sent national revival, we’d have different questions because Christians would need to know upon what basis to make decisions in and for a nation in which the majority of people were living for Christ.
This is not our primary question yet, though Christians still need to know how to think about the state and their role within it. But whatever that looks like, one thing in the meantime is clear: man cannot live by pencils alone…