During my recent travels through the United Kingdom I took the opportunity to visit, in some cases revisit, a number of famous cathedrals, abbeys etc. as well as more humble local churches. As I did so I felt an overwhelming sense of melancholic sadness, for here was I in the ‘Valley of Dry Bones’. For what were once magnificent centres of vibrant worship, ministry and powerful mission to pagan tribes, have become just a residual skeleton, the faint echo of missional movements long faded, buildings knowingly constructed for the Glory of God, now more employed for attracting tourists (and their dollars) rather than pilgrims, and maintaining ministry forms of yesteryear.
Yes Sunday bells may still call the faithful to worship, to aged liturgies, but few attend, and older. Across the landscape in every direction of church building spires puncture the sky but they are the bones, the skeleton of that once spiritual giant Christendom, flawed yes but one that shaped beliefs, lives and culture, now but a distant memory.
In my melancholic reflection I was reminded yet again of that most horrible scene, the horror movie Ezekiel was made to watch of God leaving the Temple, symbolically leaving His people (Ezek. 11:22-25). An act of judgment on the people of God’s mix and match religion, infiltrated, corrupted by the ‘gods’ of the surrounding culture, clinging to the form of religion but debased and faithless, prophetically warned but wilfully blind and clinging to ‘she’ll be right’. Then the horror, and the tragedy of God leaving them in the ‘Valley of dry bones’. Yes the religious structures and rituals remained but their reason and for whom forgotten, and He had now left anyway.
Eyes switch from that horror scene to our own. We view an ecclesial skeleton of a once ‘Sunday school full’ past vitality, and the same melancholic sadness falls. Yes so many good, godly, faithful brothers and sisters working hard organizing events, campaigns as we have done for so long, but with so little fruit, certainly less than required to reverse decline. There seems a blindness-spiritual, to the reality and implications of our chronic failure to significantly engage our own set of pagan tribes around us. In bondage to forms of yesteryear, and “she’ll be right”, do we not stand in our own ‘Valley of Dry Bones’? A skeleton which needs the breath of the Spirit of the God of ‘new things’ to breathe life once more? However like the Israelites there is the lack of the critical eye, a self-analytical vacuum, a dearth of vision, a timidity of leadership and either a wilful ignorance of our real spiritual state or blindness to it.
If in our melancholic sadness however, we ask God’s question of Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” we will find encouragement. There is a springing forth of green shoots of new life amongst the bones, sproutings to be seen across the English landscape and (though less so) in Australia. These are new manifestations of the New Testament spiritual DNA for Christian community-no bells, bespoke buildings, and Sunday-distant, rather cyberspace or one-on-one calls to anytime and place, to coffee shop and skate-park, to pub and smash repairers yard.
Green shoots that will sprout if we unshackle ourselves from our present bondage and listen to the God who does new things (Isaiah 43:19), but we must open our eyes and be open to embracing His new things! Sadly many are not, both leaders and congregational members. Rather what we see are more attempts to revive the bones (with the investment of huge resources) by repeating what we have been doing for a long while and failing.
However as I reflect on the Cathedrals, Abbeys, God’s now faded mission champions of yesteryear, diminished local churches, and also in melancholy sadness on our own ‘skeleton’ there is also encouragement. There are green shoots in the ‘Valley’, not through revival of the bones, but by the creation of new spiritual organisms, new ‘abbey’ mission bases, missional communities set in the ‘tribes’. God is indeed saying “see I am doing a new thing”.