‘Always winter and never Christmas’, that line from C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe could be reasonably applied to much within the Church of Ireland today. The embracing of moral relativism (especially in the area of human sexuality), the liberal theological outlook of many of the clergy and the lack of confidence and conviction in the Bible as the Word of God has led to churches declining, both numerically and spiritually. Sadly there appears to be a blanket of complacency and apathy amongst many and a refusal to recognise the crisis facing the Church of Ireland today. So how can we bring spring into the winter of the Church of Ireland? When you examine churches that are growing, within Ireland and the rest of the world, it is clear that the majority are evangelical with an emphasis on expository preaching of the Word of God. For example if you look at the Anglican diocese of Sydney, you can see that it has experienced a 9% growth in church numbers which is at odds with the 7% decline of Anglican churches in Australia generally. Why? It is apparent that the difference is in focus on preaching the Word of God.
Biblical churches owe their existence to the living Word of God. A church is not a set of names on a parish register but a group of disciples who have responded to the call of Christ, who meet with others who have experienced that same salvation. This means that a church is not a club or association but a family, a living organism. Their main concern is for growth both in numbers and in maturity in the faith. Gospel thinking and priorities dictate all areas of church life. Too often our church meetings do not have the gospel as a priority. So often the priorities are those of the marketplace and not the gospel.
Biblical churches are sustained by the Word of God. In most of our churches the Bible is read every Sunday and a sermon preached. The sermon may, or may not, have some connection to the Bible passages read. Only where the preaching is a systematic exposition of the Word of God with pointed application is the gospel unleashed to do its work in hearts and lives. There is a requirement on all bible teachers to work hard at preaching and teaching. Preaching the Word of God needs to be seen to be, and to become, the priority of the Church of Ireland. There is no shortcut to the pulpit! This has serious implications for the manner in which our clergy are trained. Those with the responsibility for training need to realise the poverty in preaching within the Church of Ireland and to examine its root cause, namely lack of training in preaching whilst at theological college. It would appear that training in the preparation and presentation of a sermon is not a high priority at the Church of Ireland Theological College (CITC).
Biblical churches are Word centred and not programme driven. Of course we need to meet with people and to provide opportunities to build relationships and bridges. All too often however, the bridges are built but never crossed with the gospel. Too many church activities are an end in themselves instead of being the bridges over which the gospel is taken to people. Church leaders need to examine why organisations within churches exist. Are they gospel based? Are they gospel orientated? Is the gospel the heart beat of this organisation? Social activities are necessary within a church fellowship but not at the expense of the Word of God.
Biblical churches support each other. That may appear to be a trite comment but it has immense implications in the years ahead for those who are concerned with reaching people with the gospel. The Church of Ireland is respected throughout the island of Ireland, and that is to be welcomed. But are priority is to win people for Christ and to build them up to maturity in the faith. Our priority is not the maintenance of an institution nor the maintenance of a Church of Ireland identity. We need to examine where we are spending our resources – both in terms of finance and people. This will mean examining resource allocation at all levels of the Church of Ireland – parish, diocesan and general synod. It will mean asking difficult questions concerning the allocations of funds to non-gospel work. It will mean challenging the allocation of people to non-gospel tasks.
We need to begin working together within a local geographical community with those who are equally concerned for the spread of the gospel. This will mean working across parochial and denominational boundaries. Once again the gospel of Christ is our priority and not the institution or identity of the Church of Ireland. It is time to waken up to the fact that within the Church of Ireland there are structures and people whose priority is not the gospel and we need to bypass them and get on with the great commission to reach people with the gospel of Christ Jesus.
Biblical churches must be involved in training. We are seeing today the results of the liberal theology and catholic practice taught at CITC. The harvest we are reaping is one of declining churches and moral relativism which embraces the spirit of the age and fails to proclaim the gospel of Christ to a lost world. Gospel churches need to facilitate the training of leaders in the handling of the Word of God. The local church needs to be the foundation of training men and women how to correctly handle the Word of God. The Ministry Training Scheme, Moore Theological College Correspondence Courses and many other resources are available but local churches need to take them on board and use them.
We need churches to be proactive in encouraging people to go into Christian ministry and then to provide the necessary support for them to be trained. We need churches to challenge the liberal teaching agenda of CITC and to challenge those in authority to provide the necessary resources for biblical training for those embarking on ministry. There is presently a window of opportunity to do this with the review of theological training taking place. Reform Ireland would encourage rectors, individuals and Select Vestries to address their concerns (in writing) about theological training to their diocesan council and to their bishop.
It is apparent that many within the Church of Ireland are quickly becoming biblically illiterate. The need to train and develop bible teachers and preachers at all levels of ministry is urgent. We will need to have the courage to resource only those people and programmes that support and promote the gospel. We need to recover confidence in the gospel of Christ and the conviction that it is the only means of salvation for mankind. We desperately need to return to the expository preaching of the Word of God because where that flourishes we will see people coming to faith in Christ and churches growing.
Gospel priorities should be and need to be our priorities.
21st September 2006