Anticipating the futureStephen Hance

A reflection on our emerging context

The Revd Dr Stephen Hance, National Lead for Evangelism and Witness for the Church of England, writes...

Futurology is a mug’s game. In fact, understanding what is going on today is enough of a challenge for us most of the time. And yet there is a sense in which we are always having to ask questions about today and tomorrow. Perhaps the key question for us in any season is, ‘What time is it?’ In other words, what is going on in and around us now? What do we sense God is doing? And what are the challenges and opportunities that this presents for us in our service of God’s mission?

As I have reflected on these questions, I have found myself thinking about seven possible characteristics of our emerging context, and their implications for mission.

1. Solidarity and localism

What is going on when we step outside to clap for the NHS? Is it possible to go back to underpaying and undervaluing key workers after all this, or will a new sense of social solidarity towards those who have served us, and towards our more vulnerable neighbours, be a characteristic of what is to come? Some of us have come to know and love our own neighbourhood in a new way through our local walks. What are the implications of this for church life – from gathered to local?

2. Organisational reputation now make or break

I suspect all of us can think of companies with whom we are less inclined to spend our money and those we are more willing to use instead as a result of how they are perceived to have acted during the pandemic. What are the implications of this for local churches? What we do now will matter. Locally and nationally, how the church is judged to have responded will impact our reach for the foreseeable future, for good or ill.

3. Spiritually seeking, especially amongst the young

Savanta/ComRes research which has been widely reported noted that 24% of people say that they have accessed worship via the web or other media during lockdown, 5% of whom say they have never been to church. The proportion is 34% among 18-24s. This is significant. Many will have given thought to big, spiritual questions during this time, and the church needs to be ready to engage and support.

4. Online is here to stay

Whatever the future may hold, there is no question that online will be a part of our future, for worship as well as for other meetings. For some people, online will be a way to try us out before they turn up in a physical space. For others, it will their long-term spiritual home. This poses questions for us about theology, ecclesiology, sacraments and discipleship. But we will have to grapple with these questions rather than return to what has gone before.

5. Smaller and diverse congregations

When our buildings reopen, for some time we will need to implement social distancing measures, which of necessity will require larger gathered congregations to multiply into smaller ones. There are opportunities here to increase the range of what we offer in terms of ethos, timing, and liturgical content.

6. Fragile and tentative

I love this quote from Rachel Mann’s blog: “The church which comes out of lockdown will, I think, be digitally promising, physically smaller, more financially precarious and tentative, and potentially more flexible and interesting.” (http://therachelmannblogspot.blogspot.com/)

7. Rest and play

We will emerge from this as a society in collective trauma. A traumatised society will need a church which has a light touch, which knows how to play, to experiment, to laugh, and to rest – a church which can offer and exhibit the fullness of life about which Jesus speaks.

Stephen was ordained as a deacon in 1993, and as a priest in 1994. From 1993 to 1996, he served his curacy in the Diocese of Portsmouth. He then served as Team Vicar of St. Saviour's Hanley Road in the Diocese of London before moving to Southwark Diocese in 1999, where he was Vicar of Ascension Balham Hill and then Director of Mission and Evangelism for the Diocese of Southwark. Stephen is on Twitter: @StephenHance1

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