Wesley’s fortunes in the West Country were mixed but improved over time. We tend to remember the better days in his life, but in an early visit to Cornwall Wesley recalls how he had been taken prisoner by an “immense mob, gaping and roaring like lions”. Still, Wesley persisted and stayed the course. 40 years later, the streets were lined with people of “stark love and kindness, gaping and staring as if the king were going by”.
It seems to me that the days of the great evangelist are no longer culturally possible. I have been reading a book called The Provocative Church this past ten days or so, by Graham Tomlin. He makes some good points: that we live in a post-modern age where the authority of the Church (or almost anyone in leadership) can no longer be taken for granted; a society which breathes the oxygen of cynicism and critical comment.
Neither can we assume any meaningful level of fore-knowledge about Christ or God. For many people it seems that the Church is a dusty, old, irrelevant organisation that gets involved in things it shouldn’t and ought to mind its own business.
Tomlin proposes that for the Church to be successfully evangelistic in our present social reality, we must be seen to be authentically living out the kingdom values that we profess to own… we must be seen to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. That if our personal and corporate lives truly reflect a life as a follower of Jesus, our lives themselves will provoke interest and questions from the unchurched.
This is a very compressed version of the 170 pages of argument, of course. But it did get me thinking about what a “provocative church” might look like in somewhere like Netley. What community needs are there on our doorstep that we might address? Clearing the beach of litter? Supplying cake to the elderly ladies that meet for coffee on a Monday morning, or leaving them some flowers? Facilitating a parent-and-toddler group?
I’m sure we wouldn’t have to scratch too deep to find all sorts of needs. The problem, however, is that discovering these, and resourcing solutions, really requires a church that is rooted in the community that it is looking to serve – and that is something we have never managed to achieve at Netley.
I can see Netley remaining available as a resource building for use by church and community groups from time to time. It has a wonderful intimate atmosphere. Just this past week I was there for three days helping to facilitate training for leaders of the IGNITE discipleship course. We enjoyed some awesome times of worship and prayer and it was a timely reminder of the power of this place to connect us with God.
I am coming to the view that Netley needs local people, with local community connections and roots if it is to be a place in which the values of the Kingdom are able to provoke a response from that community.