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Reading:     Isaiah 43:15 – 21

So we’ve spent a few weeks looking at reimagining church in the 21st century, and I want for a few minutes to take us outside the bubble of the church building and the security of our familiar surroundings and practice to see what’s been happening in the world this century. If you were here for the Churches Together Songs of Praise, I apologise because you’ll have heard some of this already.

I wonder how the prophet Isaiah would have felt if he could have looked forward 2700 years to the 21st century and seen the kind of rapidly changing world which we face today. Just look at some of the things that have occurred since the turn of the century:

2000 – “Big Brother” launched: the beginning of reality television, leading to the election of a reality TV star to the White House

2001 – 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, beginning the so-called war on terror which has had such devastating consequences for the Middle East

iPod

2003 – Skype

2004 – Facebook

2005 – Youtube

            24-hour pub opening licensed

            Civil partnerships introduced

2006 – Nintendo Wii – interactive gameplaying

            Twitter

            Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion published

2007 – iPhone (by the way, my iPhone has over one million times the memory of the first Amstrad computer I had about 28 years ago)      

            iPlayer

            Kindle

2009 – Costa opened their 1000th shop across the world (there are now 1000 in UK alone;

Starbucks has another 800!)

2010 – iPad

2012 – Tinder dating site (receiving 1 billion swipes a day!)

            Gay marriage legalised

2016 – In 15 years, the % of people claiming to have no religion has risen from 40% to 52%. while the % of people calling themselves Christian has declined from 52% to 43%.

            The number of church marriages has declined from 155,000 to 74,000.

The highest proportion of those with no religion are those under 24.

            The population of Sleaford has grown at twice the national rate of growth.

There is greater movement of people around the globe than at any time in our history.

In Isaiah 43:18, God says to the prophet, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” The world, too, is doing new things at a mind-boggling rate, and that’s a huge challenge to the Christian Church, and therefore to Riverside Church.

So what do all these changes tell us about the world into which we as the church have to take God’s mission? A lot, but I’m just going to focus on three broad areas:

  • The way we communicate has changed

We are now living in a world of instant communication in a way unprecedented at any time.

Those of you who can think back to the Falklands War of 1982 will remember the briefings we used to get from the Foreign Office telling us what had happened in limited detail of events from perhaps the previous few days. Today, we can see a reporter live in Aleppo while bombing is actually taking place. News is now instant.

When I was a student, communication with home was the weekly letter and the occasional phone call when I could afford the coins. Today, I can be in touch through email, text messages, Facebook, and Twitter and the contact is instant. I now communicate far more by email and extremely rarely by letter. I can talk to my grandchildren on my phone with live pictures on Facetime, or someone across the other side of the world on Skype. If you go to a church where there’s a significant proportion of millennials – those are the people who’ve grown up during the 21st century – and you ask them to turn to their Bibles, they’ll mostly just get out their smartphones and pull up their Bible app. On my phone I’ve got 49 different versions of the Bible ranging from the King James version of 1611 right up to the modern paraphrase, The Message, and I can switch from one to the other at the touch of a button. To some young people, even Powerpoint presentations are a bit old fashioned with the arrival of such software as Prezi, which I might try out on you when I’ve mastered it!

So how do we communicate the gospel? Well, largely, we still expect people to come into church and listen to a sermon which will tell them that they’re sinners who need to repent and be born again and receive God’s free gift of salvation, or words to that effect.

That leads us neatly on to my second point:

  • How religion is viewed has changed

Go back a generation or so and many of you probably went to Sunday School as a child, even if your parents didn’t go to church. It was often a way of having a peaceful afternoon without the kids around. In the 1960s, I taught in a Sunday School with over 100 children, hardly any of whose parents ever came into the church. Today, most Sunday Schools have either closed or are made up of the few children of the regular churchgoers.

If you had RE at school, it was almost wholly Christian based. I remember my second teaching practice as a student having to teach the book of Esther for four weeks with a class of 13-year-olds. Today, Christianity is one faith amongst a raft of faiths all given equal weighting, with no attempt to suggest that any one is better or worse than any other.

Until relatively recently, the vast majority of people in this country would have described themselves as Christians. Although it has always been there, you heard very little spoken about atheism. Today, there’s been a huge rise in a quite vocal atheism, and it manifests itself in two ways: on the one hand, there is the aggressively militant atheism of people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, whose book, The God Delusion, sold over 3 million copies, and who is quite disdainful of all religion; on the other hand, there’s what I’d call the more gentle atheism of people like the TV presenter, Brian Cox, who is a very likeable guy, an excellent presenter of science programmes, someone who displays a real sense of awe and wonder at the universe, and whose much more tolerant, live-and-let-live approach has made atheism a great deal more attractive to a younger generation.

Now I don’t want to discard the message of the gospel, but I wonder whether we don’t have to find a new way of proclaiming it, and particularly to find new language to use in talking about our faith. We have an awful lot of religious language in our vocabulary, and even the word gospel is meaningless to most people. Furthermore – and here’s the crunch for us today – even if we don’t face actual hostility to our sharing our faith, we face a huge indifference because the church is seen as either corrupt, or irrelevant, or outdated, or bigoted, or all of these. The one thing that will not work with people today is trying to give them answers to questions which they’re not even asking. The only times that God appears in their thinking is either in the universal expletive, Oh My God!, or when they’re blaming the God that they don’t even believe in for all the terrible things that he either allows to happen or causes, like cancer in children, to quote Stephen Fry. So what’s our response? This leads neatly into my final point:

 

  • Relationships have changed

I want to mention three ways that they’ve changed:

First, you’ll have noticed from the data at the beginning that church marriages have more than halved over the last 20 years, and that’s not because civil marriages have increased: the number getting married in registry offices and approved places had stayed just about the same for the last 20 years. Official national statistics also show that 87% of couples have lived together before marriage; and even among those getting married in church, the number is still 78%. Whatever you may think, we can no longer talk about couples living in sin today without being incredibly judgmental. So marriage is less popular, and living together is becoming the norm, and furthermore, the nature of the family has changed, so that there are now far more single parent families, divorced and re-married families, and families where children are being raised by gay or lesbian parents.

Second, social media has changed the way people make relationships. I mentioned Tinder at the beginning, a dating site which has only been in existence for three years but which has    a billion hits every day!

Third, gay marriage is now widely accepted as just as normal as heterosexual partnerships, except with most institutional churches, who continue to be seen as homophobic. I’m not going to debate the issue this morning, but it is a challenge to a church whose Lord extends his love to everyone and so challenges us as to how we accept those who are different from us.

The world of 2016 is not the world of 1996; what we did in 1662, or 1850 or even 2000 may not work in 2016. It is changing at a more rapid rate than at any time in history. Two weeks ago, Les challenged us with two questions which are perhaps the most important questions we could ask both of ourselves and of our church: What is God saying to us? And What are we doing about it?

If you don’t think God is saying anything to you personally, then perhaps you need to ask him! The one thing he doesn’t want of any of us is for us just to be passive pew fodder. Your Christian walk has got to be more than just coming to Riverside on a Sunday morning.

But what is God saying to us as a local church? Well, I’m going to be bold enough this morning to tell you what I think God is saying to us here, and I think there are three things he’s saying:

  • You need to be praying more
  • You need to give a renewed drive to home groups
  • You need to be less passive a people

  • You need to be praying more

We’re going to act on this in the New Year: we plan our preaching programme in blocks of four months, so, on the first Sunday of each block in the future, there will be no sermon, and instead we will devote the service to prayer. The leader will structure the service so that sometimes it may be open prayer, sometimes we may break into groups to focus on different areas to pray for. Prayer is our essential lifeline and communications channel to God which we need to tap into often.

  • You need to give a renewed drive to home groups

Every church in this country which is growing, without exception, sees as fundamental to that growth a commitment to small groups, cell groups, home groups, call them what you like. They are the bedrock of growing churches, and those churches have an expectation that the majority of their people will be part of a small group, because that’s where real growth and discipleship happens. If you’re not part of a small group let me encourage you to talk to me or one of our group leaders so that we can really grow and develop our groups. A new daytime one began just a week or so ago, and we’ll happily start new ones or feed you into one of the established ones to fit with your own commitments.

  • You need to be less passive a people

I was talking just a few weeks ago to someone in our congregation who said to me how he couldn’t understand those people whose faith seems to be limited to an hour on Sunday morning. He couldn’t understand how someone could come to church on a Sunday, worship God and listen to a challenging sermon, them go home and come back the next week and do the same thing over and over, week after week…and that’s it!

So I guess my final challenge at the end of this series is: how far is your faith a passive faith? Now let me just say this so that you don’t misunderstand me: you may well be someone who’s really living out your faith every day as well as you can in your neighbourhood, your workplace, your home, and you may take on board every week encouragements and challenges you’re presented with. Amen to that, and I’m not trying to heap guilt on you. But there just may be some of you who are thinking, “Yes, I do need to challenge myself about my faith from Monday to Saturday. This is NOT an appeal for you to do more in church, heaven forbid! It’s rather to encourage you just to ask yourself if I’m really doing all I can to live out my faith every day.

Let me finish with a powerful quotation from the American writer Maya Angelou, who wrote, “People will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” Let’s not use our faith to condemn, to judge, to belittle, as is certainly happening in America at the moment, but let’s live out God’s love because that’s more important than anything else. thing we can’t do: we can’t sit in our buildings and wait for the people to come to us: Jesus’s great commission was to GO, not to stay and say COME! Let’s find ways individually and together to live out our faith, because today our life and love will often speak far louder than our deeds and words.

  • Hebrews 10:30-31

    “For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

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