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.