Epiphany And The Recession

Today is Epiphany, the day millions of Christians have traditionally celebrated as the appearing of the Christ. It is particularly associated with the visit of the Magi.

Yet in the UK today marks less an appearing than a disappearing. The last Woolworths shops have closed their doors tonight. That is especially poignant in our house. They were my wife’s first employer, initially when she did a ‘Saturday job’ while at school. Then, when she left school, they took her on full time.

A couple of weeks ago, we walked through the Chelmsford store and tried to explain to our small children that it would be closing forever. This place where they had enjoyed getting a tub of ‘Pick and Mix’ sweets,and  where we had bought toys and cheap Ladybird clothes for them, would be no more. Rebekah cried inconsolable tears. How do you explain ‘recession’ to a five-year-old? I’m no economist (which is partly why I’ve been loath to say too much on the subject), and I find it hard to understand.

Looking on as an adult consumer, it’s easy to see where Woolies fell down. They fell betwixt and between, a Jack of all trades, master of none, with no clear vision. What kind of a shop was it? Something of a hotch-potch in recent years, doing several things reasonably but none of them well.

And that makes them sound like many churches. They try to do this, that and everything, because X, Y and Z are all things that a church should supposedly do, but they overstretch themselves and do few of them well. I received a good piece of advice early on from a minister friend called Paul Ashby. He said, “No church is the complete Body of Christ.” We don’t need to do it all. I don’t see anything wrong in an individual congregation specialising. It happens to an extent, even when we don’t acknowledge it, simply through the kind of people in a said church and its location.

Yes, there are shops that want to do a bit of everything, notably the major supermarkets, which have gone way beyond groceries. However, they have done so from positions of economic strength and market dominance, much in the way a large church can cover a lot of bases. But we aren’t all large supermarkets or megachurches.

Likewise, we’ve had the news in the last twenty-four hours that Waterford Wedgwood has gone into administration. Who’s buying bone china tea services any more? Not us. When we moved from our six-bedroom manse in the last circuit to our small three-bedroom house here, we had to downsize considerably. Not without cause did we call ourselves Mr and Mrs eBay. Among the possessions to go were our cups and saucers. We decided to rely entirely on mugs. They are far more acceptable today than the day when it seemed like only builders drank from one. Moreover, when we hear about the need to take in sufficient fluid, who wants a small cup? Even some churches are dispensing with the hideous green crockery! Besides, I need a pint mug of tea to get me going first thing in the morning.

All of which implies for me that a company like Wedgwood has had too narrow a vision. I can best illustrate what I mean by reproducing a story I found in the December 1990 edition of the now defunct MARC Newsletter. It came from an article entitled ‘Doing research with eyes to see’ by Bryant Myers:

There is a story of a company that manufactured drill bits for over forty years. It had been very successful, but the industry was maturing and profit margins were getting thin.

The son of the founder attended his first senior staff meeting after his father died.

“What business are we in?” he asked the older men, who had served alongside his father for many years.

“We make drill bits!” came the exasperated answer. “Our customers need drill bits.”

“No. Our customers need holes,” the young man quietly replied. Today the company is again successful. In addition to drill bits, it manufactures lasers that make very precise holes.

And maybe that too has been a problem in many churches. We have made drill bits instead of holes. I’m not arguing for some corporate-style approach to vision and mission statements, but I am saying that a time of crisis is one that should make us remember the basics of why we exist.

That’s where I get into my usual points about the fundamental orientation of the church being missional. Too often, if you ask church members what the purpose of the church is, they will answer ‘worship’. And while if you push them they will accept that worship is more than the Sunday service, it is everyday lifestyle, really the heart of the answer betrays an assumption that the Sunday morning gathering is the main event.

I don’t wish to disparage Sunday worship at all. But defining ourselves by worship has ironically turned us in on ourselves instead of focussing on God, who is the object of our worship. When the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost in Acts 2, it is hard to know where you draw the line between worship and mission that day.

What I’m saying, then, is that the pressure of the recession has exposed problems of confused vision in companies. The confused vision on its own hasn’t taken them under, but it has left them vulnerable at a time when the economy stopped swinging. Sadly too it is often only a crisis that makes us notice the confused vision in our churches.

There is much more to be said about the moral dimension of the recession itself. I particularly commend a blog post from Sunday by Dave Perry, in which he notes the remarks of a secular journalist who wonders whether the recession will make us a better country. ‘Can we spend our way out of emptiness?’ asks Dave, implying of course a ‘no’.

Similarly, I commend a podcast of a sermon by Ken Costa entitled ‘Surviving The Financial Tsunami‘. Costa is a church warden at Holy Trinity Brompton and chair of Lazard International. As well as some gentle pastoral advice for those facing financial woes at present, he identifies the current crisis as a ‘shaking’ from God, yet eschewing any easy claims to it being divine judgment. Having said that, the sermon carries a clear call to a fundamental change of the values by which we live – as individuals, as commerce and as nations. There is a useful comparison with the downfall of Tyre in Ezekiel 27.


  1. Thanks Dave for an interesting and challenging post. There is an interesting correlation between the financial world and the spiritual, and you may have something here in respect of recession within the church, especially when we hear much about decreasing numbers etc.


  2. FP,

    Thanks for your comments. I think as I was typing the post (which was very ‘stream of consciousness’) it sounded like I was just using the business tragedies as examples of spiritual principles, rather like sermon illustrations (which is how I’ve used the ‘drill bits’ story for years). I hope I haven’t minimised the pain of the current situation for millions of people.

    Peter Kirk in his Gentle Wisdom piece for which there is a pingback above makes the valuable observation that churches often fade away, in contrast to companies that implode.


  3. Dave
    A profound post. Firstly your analysis of the economics involved looks good to me – I am an accountant by the way. Dear Woolies has lacked a unique identity for some time. That is not to say it did not meet needs especially in some of the local parades where it was located with minimal competition. And niche suppliers like Wedgewood can become too narrowly focused. Peter Drucker, a management guru of the 50s/60s, who I read a lot of, and who according to TC on New Leaven did find Christ, was hot on knowing what you exist for. I like your drill bit example, and it made me think of a similar one from personal experience.

    The potential appplication for the church seems to follow easily. I do sometimes jib at the amount of management speak and practice which is infecting the church. Partly because I do that sort of thing all day, and want to get away from it at home! That is not to deny we should be professional and high calibre in our approach to what we do. And my first 4 years as a Reader have been subject to a mercifully light touch level of supervision and appraisal. We should understand what we are trying to do, coming back to Temple’s point that we exist for those who are not currently our members!


  4. Colin,

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Twenty years or so ago, I thought it was very much the thing for the church to learn from management theory. However, while there will be some crossover, these days I am less convinced by the thought. There is a whole difference between the command structure of line management and leadership in a voluntary society. There is also the danger of importing consumerism to the church, something we have tragically done in disastrous quantities in recent decades.

    Nevertheless, what is surely common is the category of ‘vision’, and maybe that is one reason why both religious organisations (including churches) and other entities such as PLCs and NHS trusts all talk the language of vision statements or mission statements today. It is important to be clear what our vision is – and what it isn’t. Your allusion to William Temple’s famous dictum falls squarely into that area, I think.

    I note you also refer to appraisal. I fear that one is a danger for the church. Rightly we have realised the need for accountability, but some areas of the church look like they might uncritically take over secular notions of appraisal that are not necessarily easily translatable into the life of the gospel community. However, perhaps that is another post!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s