To avoid becoming the religious version of the Liberal Democrats, we need to ask some key questions

It seems to be becoming something of a habit to draw some wisdom for the church from a Danny Finkelstein comment piece. I’m not quite sure why it keeps happening, or what it says about me (or him). It’s not like our politics are that close. Anyway, there it is.

This time, in his Times column, he insists ‘there is no point to the Liberal Democrats’ (paywall). Aside, of course, from that truth speaking for itself, the following paragraph that opens up on why that is:

Here are the problems of the Liberal Democrats. They don’t stand for anything, they don’t stand for anybody, they can’t win and even if they could it would be utterly pointless. In order to be successful, a political party has to represent either a distinct ideology or a significant demographic group. The Liberal Democrats have neither. The seats they hold are spread around the country with electorates entirely unalike and interests that clash. The party doesn’t know who it is for, preferring to be seen as the party of everybody while in reality being the party of almost nobody.

He goes on, at some length, about the other problems facing the Liberal Democrats. It isn’t a short article. And, for the most part, I think he is absolutely right. But it was the quoted paragraph I wanted to land on.

As I read it, it was hard to get many churches out of my mind. With that in mind, read this again: ‘they don’t stand for anything, they don’t stand for anybody… and even if they could it would be utterly pointless.’ It might sound pretty brutal, but it is an accurate description of some of us. We, too often, represent neither any distinct theology nor exist for any particular demographic group. We, too often, don’t know who or what we are for, largely making us appealing to nobody.

You may be conjuring up images of the wettest and woolliest of Anglicans right now. And, to be fair, there are a troubling large number of them that appear to believe God, if he’s there at all, is probably a Liberal Democrat who just thinks we should all be a bit nicer to each other. Choosing to be as inclusive as possible and creating a church that doesn’t just welcome everyone, but affirms them too, they are very much a church for everybody that, essentially, then becomes for nobody.

But there is a danger for plenty of dissenting churches too. Let’s not pretend we don’t have our own wet and woolly contingent. But leaving them to one side, we might not be wet and woolly in our beliefs, but we still have no idea who or what we are for. Some want to be welcoming to everybody, seeking to conform themselves to what they presume will ‘bring in’ the largest number of people. Others do the opposite and insist the church exists primarily for its members, but then proceed to so focus on their members that they cannot fathom why nobody from outside ever buys into what they’re doing. Outsiders are wanted but because no thought is ever given to them and no recognition that doing what you used to do in 1961 isn’t going to resonate with your community in 2021. Some attempt to be for both and, in the end, find they please neither.

However it works out, too many of us simply don’t know what we are here for or who we are here for? Are we a church simply to have meetings on Sunday? Are we here for God’s sake, for each other, community or some combination of all these things? Should what we do be geared up principally for believers, unbelievers or ought we to have an eye on both somehow? Do we decide what to do based on what we’ve always done in the past, what is new and fresh or some combination based on what seems appropriate in our community? These are just some of the questions we need to ask ourselves and for which many of us simply don’t have answers. We neither know who we are for nor what we are for.

Much like the Liberal Democrats, if we can’t figure out the answers to these questions, we will soon find we become a total irrelevance. Sure, we might have the occasional equivalent of a by-election victory; a solitary well attended evangelistic event, a baptism extremely rarely or whatever. But, in the long run, the trajectory won’t be a happy one. We need to be clear with our church: why are we here? What are we here for and who are we here for? If we can’t answer that, we can’t be surprised if nobody else can either and we soon find ourselves without any people as nobody can fathom why they ought to come here either.