Our city, our concern
If taken seriously Dr David Smith’s talks at our day conference issue a very considerable challenge. I would like to summarise what he said, with one or two comments of my own.
He spoke of the striking similarity between two reports he had to hand when preparing: our parish profile written by George Chalmers, and research done among a similar population in Leipzig. Both of them highlight the lack of contact between evangelical churches and people in their late teens and twenties, who of course form the great majority of our parish.
One of the Leipzig youngsters made a discerning comment. Whereas our parents have forgotten God, he said, we have forgotten that we have forgotten God: the distance between the church and us is that complete. George Chalmers’s report draws attention to the same divide in Glasgow. Nearly 1800 people, a third of our parish, indicated in the last census that they have no religion.
Is this not reminiscent of the situation recorded in Jonah, and God’s message to believers then? “Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
Let us see our city therefore through God’s eyes, with compassion. Let us not be like the thousands of churches who carry on ‘business as usual’ without asking why God has put us exactly here, in this place, at this time.
As Dr. Smith quoted, ‘If I draw my lifeblood from the Greater than Jonah yet decline to spread the news among others, I am sabotaging the aims of God himself. Jonah is father to those who accept the blessings of election but refuse its responsibilities.’
Our situation is made yet more difficult by the transience of our parish population. Most are 20-35 and will have moved on in 6-10 years, making it difficult or impossible to build a typical congregation from the parish. Of course our parish is actually the whole of Glasgow, as it is for every city church; but let that not stop us addressing ourselves to those especially committed to our care.
If our parish is transient, unchurched and has forgotten God, it is also deeply suspicious of institutional religion including the church, Christian observance and the respect that used to be afforded to leaders. We really do face a challenge, therefore, when it comes to meaningfully making the Gospel known.
In his second talk Dr Smith painted four stages in the popular attitude in Glasgow. When founded it was widely agreed that a city can only flourish when there is worship and the preaching of God’s word. Later, business and religion separated in people’s minds; they did not perceive a connection. With the flowering of a strong social evangelicalism in the late nineteenth century the Gospel again acted to help the poor and build a city whose values reflected God’s reign. But now we live in a Glasgow of spiritual emptiness where the only value to which all bow is Money. He called modern Glasgow ‘the style city’ and asked, “How is the Gospel to be expressed so as to resonate with people for whom style is central? What kind of church will emerge in these circumstances?”
It is clear that, as much as any missionary on a foreign mission field, we must learn their language and what motivates and worries them. The Christian pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented that God’s people have to live in the ‘far country’ in order to seed the Gospel. We have to listen with the ears of God in order to speak the word of God. We cannot expect suspicious strangers, who think very differently from us, simply to come into our ‘foreign’ building. “Crossing the bridge to another culture means living on terms set by other people”
That is a lot to ask, but if we manage those two tasks of effective meeting and genuine conversation we shall get, said Dr. Smith, many surprises. Here are some of the comments recorded in the Leipzig research:
- ‘I thought Christians only help people so their conscience won’t bother them.’
- ‘After knowing some Christians I thought Christianity might be true: it includes doctors and lawyers.’ (!)
- ‘Attending church has not helped me understand spirituality or the meaning of life.’
- ‘I feel a bad person after attending church and being told how to be good.’
How are we going to cross this divide? There is no formula. But somehow we have to get the church, you and me, to where the people are; and to remember the importance of being people whose humanity is enhanced, not diminished, by Jesus. For our parishioners and acquaintances do ask questions to which the Gospel is the answer. Apparently the composer Sibelius said ‘I ask myself at least once a day what is the meaning of life.’
We must work at this. As we take these insights forward, Douglas Humphris will include the responses we wrote up on the ‘prayer wall’ that day.
Should we not be concerned about this great city? So many of them are hurting. Let us work to align ourselves with God, especially with his tender mercy.
C Peter WhiteView All Letters