Today in Europe generally, and in Britain in particular, the church is in a sorry
state. It is the object of public derision. One wit remarked, ‘It’s no accident that
the church and the graveyard stand side by side.’
Things are very different in some other parts of the world. Africa, China, Latin
America and India, for example, have a growing and well-respected church. But back
here most consider the church irrelevant. Its buildings are closing at a rapid rate—in
2004 the Churches Conservation Trust anticipated the closure of more than a thousand
Anglican churches in the next decade. But it’s not just buildings that are dying;
a leader column in The Times recently referred to the UK as ‘a country whose traditional
faith is slowly retreating into history.’
Your own local church, of course, like mine, may buck this trend. I hope it does.
We know that the church is in fact God’s masterpiece. As Bill Hybels famously put
it: ‘The local church is the hope of the world.’ But in Europe generally it isn’t
seen that way at all. Most people have no idea what real church is. Recently I fell
into conversation with the mechanic who was repairing my car. We got onto the topic
of my work as a Christian minister. In spite of my best efforts to explain the kind
of church I worked in, he didn’t understand. In fact his final comment was, ‘To each
his own, eh? Some people like going to bingo; you like going to church.’
It grieves us that the church is in such a mess, and the little book of Lamentations
expresses that grief. It was written by Jeremiah, who for forty years had warned
the people of Judah that disaster would overtake them because of their sin. And now
it had happened. In 586 BC King Nebuchanezzar of Babylon had come with his invasion
force, entered Jerusalem and sacked the Temple, taking off all the able-bodied citizens
into exile. Jeremiah expresses his grief in the five funeral dirges that make up
his little book.
In Judah, Jerusalem and the Temple we have a picture of the church. The ruin of
all three, lamented in Lamentations, depicts the church in ruins today. Maybe we
can find in this book some insights that might help us see the church restored. Take
time here to read the first chapter, which personifies Jerusalem as a woman.
Jerusalem in ruins is, for us, the European church in its current mess. It has no
authority. She is a queen who has become a slave, the crown fallen from her head.
Surely the church, connected as it is with the King of kings and Lord of lords, ought
to speak to society with authority and confidence? But it doesn’t. It bickers about
the colour of the chapel curtains and gay bishops. Its different streams denounce
each other for failing to properly represent Christian standards. Its magisterial
authority is no more.
It has no distinctiveness from society at large. It ‘dwells among the nations’
not just physically but morally and spiritually, tarred with the same brush of hedonism,
scepticism and materialism. We see the scandals about the sexual abuse of children
by Roman Catholic priests. Divorce rates among professing Christians match those
in society as a whole. The world has always tried to pull the church down to its
own level, and it has succeeded.
The church’s leaders are a laughing-stock.People judge the church by what they
see of its leaders, and they are understandably cynical at what they see. The media
portray ministers either as complete wets with goofy teeth, feminised mannerisms
and namby-pamby ways, like the vicar in Dad’s Army, or as charlatans wearing a mask
of religion to cover their corruption. Too many prominent leaders in Britain—and
in the American church, known to many in Europe through the God Channel—have found
themselves exposed for sexual immorality or financial mismanagement. ‘Slick. Hypocritical.
Greedy. Power-hungry. Flamboyant. Sleazy. Materialistic. To millions of sceptical
viewers, such words define the video preachers known collectively as televangelists.
And while many responsible, credible evangelical ministers use the airwaves with
the best of motives, in the minds of scandal-weary, cynical audiences they’re the
ringmasters of electronic religion, predators—possibly perverts—in three-piece suits.’
Consequently, society views the whole church with contempt. ‘All who honoured her
despise her, for they have seen her nakedness’.
It’s not just the church’s leaders but the church as a whole that is an object of
derision: ‘Her enemies looked at her and laughed at her destruction.’ People seem
to take a perverse pleasure in seeing the great take a tumble, as so many celebrities
have discovered to their cost. The church in Britain was once great. It set the tone
of British society. Christians were influential in parliament. Wilberforce opposed
slavery; Lord Shaftesbury worked to improve working conditions, especially for children.
Sexual standards in the nation were generally Christian ones. Terry Wogan, who as
far as I know makes no explicit claim to be an active Christian, spoke about his
wedding day in a recent interview. ‘And we were both virgins,’ he commented, at which
the young lady-interviewer cried, ‘Whaaat?!’, aghast with unbelief. Things have changed.
Time was when even people who didn’t share the views of the church still respected
it. No longer. A paragraph in one local paper sums up the situation: ‘A whist drive
was held on Thursday evening in the church hall at St Winifred’s. A good time was
had by all and the event raised £53.86 towards the new vestry carpet.’
The church’s children are in exile.Sadly, many children of Christian parents
are turning out as undisciplined and anti-social as those from non-Christian families.
They often reject what Christian values they have been taught and their age-group
is noticeably absent from the typical church or chapel congregation, where pensioners
seem to be the majority. Did their parents, perhaps, adopt society’s indulgent, laissez-faire
approach to discipline? It isn’t easy to swim against the flow of public opinion,
and even Christian parents who recognise the Bible’s approval of corporal punishment
as a last disciplinary resort may fear the wrath of the anti-smacking brigade.
Scared of being labelled child-abusers, they end up shying away from providing the
kind of tough love that children need.
The church seems scared to make exclusive claims. Jeremiah complains, ‘She saw pagan
nations enter her sanctuary—those you had forbidden to enter your assembly.’
Pluralism is in vogue. The Prince of Wales, when he accedes to the throne, will,
as head of the Church of England, inherit the title ‘Defender of the Faith’, but
he has openly expressed his preference for ‘Defender of Faith’. Every religion is
considered just another path that leads to the top of the God-mountain by a different
route. But Christianity is unashamedly an exclusive religion, whose founder declared,
‘I am the way...No-one comes to the Father except through me.’ Sure, God is loving
and gracious and will surely in the end save many who have never heard Jesus’ name,
but the fullness of the knowledge of God here and now, that most precious of commodities,
is available only to genuine Christians.
The church in ruins is starved of God’s word. The siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians
brought starvation to its people. Jeremiah pictures them groaning as they searched
desperately for bread. Today the famine is of the bread of sound Christian teaching
based on the Scriptures. Many Christians prefer a church that is a social club
where they can enjoy nice friends and a cosy atmosphere, tea-drinking and trivial
conversation. Some like it to be a historical society with an emphasis on Gothic
architecture and Elizabethan English. Others see it as a provider of goose-bump sessions
with weird prophecies and visions: ‘The Lord is showing me a picture of a dartboard
and, yea, pinned to that dartboard I see a jelly-fish. I feel the Spirit telling
me that the jelly-fish’s name is Ronald.’ Yet others see it as their platform
for teaching doctrinal aberrations, or as a music club with songs strong on rhythm
but pitifully lightweight in both words and musical quality. No wonder so many church
members are shallow, and that Christian bookstores make far more money out of ‘holy
haberdashery’ than from meaty Christian books that open up the Word.
Finally, the church in ruins is devoid of young men. Jerusalem cries out, ‘The Lord
has rejected all the warriors in my midst; he has summoned an army against me to
crush my young men.’ This is not to devalue young women, but Nebuchadnezzar rightly
regarded ‘the warriors…young men’ as the key to Judah’s strength and future, and
either killed or exiled them. Today, many regard the church as being ‘for women only’.
Zion has become emasculated and feminised, and is not a suitably robust environment
for men, especially young ones. What a contrast with Islam!
Such, then, is the church in ruins in Europe today. What should be our response to
this dreadful situation? Jeremiah will point us in the right direction. He began
by being overwhelmed with sorrow, his eyes overflowing with tears. We should
be sad at the state of the church in our nation. Adding to that sadness is the fact
that so many who call themselves Christians don’t seem to be bothered. We find ourselves
crying out like Jeremiah, ‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?’
Our sorrow will prompt us to call upon God and trust him to reverse the situation.
The prophet rejoiced that there would indeed be a reversal of Judah’s fortunes one
day, because God himself had ‘announced’ it. For us it is important to keep the
global condition of the church in view, not just the local one. There are more Christians
now than ever before in the history of the world, and numbers are increasing rapidly.
For the church worldwide it is boom-time. That makes it all the more painful to see
it so weak in our own country. So let’s urge the Lord to turn things round here,
then be ready to be at his service to achieve it.
That means being ready to put right what we can. The people of Judah needed to put
away their sin, which had brought this state of affairs upon them. Only they could
do that. And there are doubtless helpful adjustments that you can make in your Christian
walk both personal and corporate. Only you can do that. At the last day, when ‘the
wedding of the Lamb has come’, the great cry of rejoicing will be: ‘His bride has
made herself ready.’ Notice ‘made herself’. Hers was the responsibility to get
herself ready for the wedding, looking her very best. This bride is the church.
You are part of it. What adjustments do you need to make?
Most importantly, we must believe for a glorious future for the church—even for the
church in our nation. The prophet Isaiah prophesied that the people of God, the church,
would one day be the biggest thing, attracting to it vast numbers from every nation.
It will happen. It must happen, because God has said so.
A few years ago Christian leader Terry Virgo did a preaching tour on the theme ‘Does
the future have a church?’ Asked what kind of church will thrive in the future in
nations like ours, he replied: ‘Churches that acknowledge the authority of Scripture
without fear, and really believe in its power and its authenticity. Churches that
make space for the Holy Spirit and recognise that new wine needs new wineskins. And
churches that build community—people are lonely and isolated in our modern culture
and need to find churches where you make intimate friends and share lives, churches
where you find a lot of love, mercy and kindness.’
That’s the kind of church I’m in right now. I want to see it replicated throughout
the nation. The ‘church in ruins’ is not for ever!
This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous
buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in
the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.
The gist of this article
In this little book Jeremiah laments the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians,
the destruction of the Temple and the departure of Judah’s people into forced exile.
What he saw is a good picture of the European church today.
1. Judah the people of God: 1 Peter 2:9-10. Jerusalem the city of God: Hebrews 12:22-23.
The Temple the dwelling-place of God: Ephesians 2:19-22.
2. Lamentations 1:1; 5:16
3. Lamentations 1:6
4. Lamentations 1:3
5. Lamentations 1:6
6. See http://christiansaware .faithweb.com/Televa ngelist_Update.htm
7. Lamentations 1:8
8. Lamentations 1:7
9. Lamentations 1:5
10. Proverbs 13:24; 22:15; 1 Corinthians 4:21
11. Lamentations 1:10
12. John 14:6. See also 1 Timothy 2:5-6; Acts 4:12.
13. For a thorough discussion of the destiny of the unevangelised see John Sanders,
No Other Name (Eerdmans, 1992).
14. Lamentations 1:11
15. See Matthew 4:4; Amos 8:11
16. I think it was Adrian Plass who first came up with this example, or something
17. Lamentations 1:15
18. Lamentations 1:16, 20
19. Lamentations 1:12
20. Lamentations 1:21-22
21. Revelation 19:7
22. See Ephesians 5:25-27
23. Isaiah 2:2-3
24. See http://www.doesthef uturehaveachurch.c om/download/PDF_I nterview_with_Terry _Virgo.pdf