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Do Christians undervalue the Church?

Andy Flannagan

The church is often an easy target. Taking on the people who are meant to turn the other cheek can be a profitable gig. If we’re honest, critiquing the bride of Christ can be a lazy default language for many of us, ensuring clicks and likes. And we should do it. Paul did it a lot.

But in our complaining, social media-induced state of near-constant outrage, do we sometimes sell ourselves short, leading to a crippling decrease in confidence? As in our domestic relationships where we often forget to encourage and default to criticism, social media is full of people knocking the church (often very correctly!) But without the balance of encouragement, our relationship to it might become as unhealthy as an encouragement-free relationship.

Do we sometimes forget what the body of Christ does for us? Do we undervalue the learning we glean from being part of an intentional community on a mission? And do we truly see how rare a thing that is in society? Let me explain why I’m labouring this point.

I enjoy conducting sessions on politics at Christian festivals. In fact it is my job to do so! I love watching the scales fall from peoples eyes, as they for the first time consider that politics might just be a valid mission-field and perhaps even one that they themselves may be called into.

But this year the session at Spring Harvest was even more joyous than usual. Before speaking I always invite 5 or 6 people to stand up and say why they’re there and what experience they have already of the connection between faith and politics. I ask that if anything is shared that is similar to what another participant is feeling that they mumble ‘Hear, Hear!’ in a parliamentary kind of way! It’s a great chance to glean the temperature of the room and be able to pitch what I share so that it is of use to the assembled clan rather than just my usual blether.  This year in response, speaker after speaker shared a similar story. In summary it was this, “We came along to this seminar 8 years ago at SH and in response I joined X political party. I’ve now been a local councillor for 5 years. Some of it has been wonderful and some of it has been very hard. But God has used me.” As you can imagine, it was incredibly encouraging!

I am increasingly buoyed by these shoots of life, but also increasingly concerned with how down on ourselves we are as the church. From my experience in the world of politics we undervalue the incredible head-start that being members of this beautiful but broken thing called the church gives us. I suspect it is true in many other sectors of society too.

There are many reasons for this ‘head-start’, but I am going to focus on three.

1 – The church is an amazing training ground for politics. It is rare in society to find another context where leadership skills, public speaking skills, conflict resolution skills, event management skills, rota-scheduling, and interpersonal skills are so naturally picked up or even formally coached. Often Christians find favour and excel in political contexts because of their ability to get things done AND build relationships rather than one or the other. We learn that in the church. And it’s not a new phenomenon. In the 1920s and 30s, a huge percentage of working class MPs would not have been there had they not been trained as Methodist lay preachers.

2 – With the explosion of incredible community work that many churches offer, in any given community, believers are actually often best-placed to represent their communities because they understand in some detail the specific challenges that people are facing. Whether it’s seeing the challenges of the benefits system through running a foodbank, the challenges of drug policy through working with addicts or the importance of mental health provision through wellbeing groups, Christians get to see at first hand the impact of good and bad policy.

3 – I still believe in the person of the Holy Spirit. The best part of my job is receiving emails or texts from unbelieving colleagues in politics (who have bumped into Christians who have recently got involved) which go something like this –

“They really impressed me from the moment I met them – they have so much energy and charisma”

“She makes people want to follow her.”

“I just love campaigning with him – there’s just something about them that people respond to on the doorstep”

That ‘something about them’ is the Holy Spirit. He’s still around and he is still making people shine. In fact if I’m honest it’s often not that difficult to shine in at-times grimy world of politics. If you attend a local meeting, turn up on time, do what you say’ll you do before the next meeting, bring biscuits, and bring even a shred of creativity and optimism, you are straightaway in the top 5% of local political operatives! It reminds me of Acts 6:3 – “Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them.” Even in the first century AD being full of the spirit and involved in logistical tasks went hand in hand.

Please hear me right. I’m not saying people don’t learn these things in other places too, or that God’s Spirit doesn't use folks from outside the church. I just think that sometimes we need to take a step back from the immediacy of today’s headlines and see the big picture of what a good deal we’ve been given being part of this thing called church.

Just look at Andrea Robinson from Doncaster. She read the book “Those Who Show Up”, felt challenged to get involved, and decided that she should therefore attend a local political party branch meeting. They loved her. They made her vice-chair within weeks, and within 6 months she was standing for council. She has now been a councillor for a number of years serving her area and bringing together the amazing work of the church there with the work of the council.

The glass ceiling that we believe to be there for Christians is happily very fragile. There are so many opportunities locally, if we could stop distracting ourselves with the middle-class soap opera of Westminster. If I had a pound for every person who says to me, “Well, that’s all very well Andy, but look at what happened to Tim Farron”. I am not trying to underplay some of the toxicity that is out there towards Christians, but the way people talk about it you would think that Christians have suddenly started believing that because something is hard we shouldn't do it, or that opposition is a prompt to not get involved.

If God had taken that approach we would still be waiting for a Messiah. Plus people also forget that Tim Farron is still doing a very effective job in Parliament, and is hugely respected by the people who have a real relationship with him there, as opposed to those who only know him through the superficial world of social media. My cheeky response to someone who is bringing up the “Tim Farron problem” may also be “So because you think you won’t be allowed to do the top job, you don’t want to be involved at all?” Such an attitude leaves Christians complaining in the stalls rather than getting on the stage. Is it really true that because we feel we can’t get the lead role, we aren’t going to play at all? Interesting theology there. How about at least going for an audition?

There will be another article up here soon explaining more about how you might do that but a great first step would be exploring the Influence Course - - a 6 week course for all your church small groups to do about finding your voice in the public square.

Watch this space for part 2 of Andy’s article.


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