What the death of the high street can teach the local church

A phenomenon I have always struggled to understand is the British tendency to get especially upset over the loss of businesses on ‘the high street’. The government appointed someone to be a ‘high street’ tsar within the last several years. There is always a lot of hangwringing when major stores close down and campaigns to ‘save our High Street’ start springing up. I’ll be honest, I don’t really get it.

Of course, I have some sympathy with the view that says nobody wants an empty high street that looks bedragled and unloved. At the same time, I find it difficult to sympathise with the calls to save our high streets from the selfsame people who have refused to shop there for decades. As most people have taken to buying online – which, in my view, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do – they have simultanesouly stopped shopping in physical high street stores. That is all well and good, but you can’t very well complain when the shops that you no longer shop in suddenly close down.

What I struggle to understand even more is why anybody would be bothered that a shop they no longer use isn’t going to be there anymore. I remember the outcry when Debenhams was closing down. I have a great deal of sympathy for those who will lose their jobs, that is never a fun thing. But I cannot for the life of me understand the outcry from people who simply weren’t shopping there. They had taken their business elsewhere, weren’t using the store but were particularly unhappy that is wasn’t going to be there any longer. I just don’t understand it.

The solution to regenerating the high street seems simple enough to me. We must fill our high streets with the kind of things that cannot be outsourced or downloaded. The reason that department stores went under is because there isn’t much they sold that you couldn’t get elsewhere, for less, on the internet. But there are, nevertheless, things you can’t easily download or order online. You cannot eat out over the internet, for example. That is why many high streets are filling up with more cafes and restaurants than ever before. But there are other things too that would fill the gap between what people actually want and what cannot be downloaded more easily online.

I think something similar goes on in our thinking in the church. We are very quick to bemoan the closing down of once great institutions and wonderful Bible preaching churches. In a general sense – inasmuch as it speaks to the spiritual state of the nation (and there is a case to be made that it doesn’t really, so much as speaks to the decline in nominal Christianity) – I can see that it is sad. But to bemoan the closure of a place that nobody is going any longer, and isn’t fit for purpose, and which most of us who claim to love the church had no interest in going specifically, it is hard to get behind the concern.

But something like this goes on whenever church ministries close down too. Despite nobody actually coming, or even necessarily wanting to serve in them, uproar ensues whenever their closure is mooted. I can understand the sadness that a once thriving Sunday School is no longer pulling in the kids, but I can’t really grasp why you would insist that a ministry you were neither utilising yourself nor running for others, that nobody else was coming to either, must continue and it no longer serving its purpose doesn’t factor.

As with the high street, the solution is not to prop up failing ministry for the sake of nostalgia. Rather, the answer is to make sure that our evangelism is fit for purpose. We need to ensure that we go to where people congregate, that we serve people with things that actually serve them and to make sure that whatever we do remains fit for purpose. There is no point pressing on with works that serve nobody, just like there is no point propping up shops that nobody else uses. Likewise, there is no point insisting that people come to us when they have made clear they intend to go elsewhere. Instead, we need to go to where the people are and/or make sure that what they get from us is not something they can just as easily get elsewhere.

In the end, if the church is going to be effective and fruitful, there is little point holding onto the nostalgia of yesteryear and bemoaning the fact that the world simply doesn’t want what we offered 50 years ago. Instead, we have to find new ways to engage. We need to make sure what we are doing achieves what it was intended to achieve. We can press on with all these things if we want, but sooner or later, we will have to accept that we are an irrelevance to the world around us. We can blame them for that situation if we want to do that too, but it won’t change the fact that if we remain irrelvant to them, our church will go the way of the dodo.

We should take a lesson from the fate of the high street. Stores that continued to offer what people weren’t interested in failed. Nostalgia and a bit of sadness that the high street was in decline didn’t bring any of them back. Instead, the high street was rejuvenated when that which couldn’t be outsourced or ordered online populated the town centre again.

In the same way, the church that continues to act and look just like it did 50 years ago will soon be viewed as an irrelvance to their community and will soon fail. Nostalgia and a bit of sadness that a gospel preaching church is going under won’t do much to revive it either. Instead, the church will be rejuvenated when it offers what cannot be found elsewhere in ways that are deemed relevant and necessary by those in the community.

The one USP the church has – the one thing we offer that cannot be found elsewhere – is Jesus Christ and his gospel. This is what must be held out. But, whilst we offer the same gospel today that was offered 50, 100, 200, 1000, 2000 years ago, it is not seen to be relevant in the same way today. The gospel must not change, but how it is presented should. The gospel must not change, but how it is relevant to somebody in 2021 is not exactly how it was relevant to somebody in 1021, or 21. Sure, there are things that crossover – we’re all still sinners in need of Christ as saviour – but the implications of the gospel are not the same. And as we cross cultural boundaries between people groups, further (yet different) implications abound. The same command given to two different people groups, in different ages, simply will not apply in the same way at all.

And so our task is not to tell people that they are interested in the wrong things, or asking the wrong questions, but to show them how the old gospel that has been proclaimed for 2000 years is specifically relevant to them today. Just as it was relevant to their grandparents and great grandparents, their national and international neighbours, so it is relevant to them. It may not be relevant in all the same ways, its implications may be different, but it is for them.

We need to make sure what we offer is not something that can be found anywhere else and we need to offer compelling reasons why what we offer is both relevant to those we are reaching and answers the very questions to which they search for answers. If we are answering the same questions that were being asked 50 or 100 years ago, the chances are we aren’t answering the ones being asked today. Though our gospel should not change over the years, if our churches don’t, we can’t be surprised when people begin to question the relevance of the gospel we proclaim when we cannot even make ourselves remotely relevant to them and their lives.