It was 1989, just over thirty years ago, when Spring Harvest had the theme – ‘What influences the Church today?’ and gave it the strapline – Deckchairs on the Titanic. Tens of thousands of Christians attended at the various venues, and there was some stirring preaching which explored how the Church was in danger of getting pre-occupied with secondary issues and ignoring the important ones.
In spite of having a prophetic edge to it, that year was perhaps the beginning of the end of an era. Whilst still large by any reckoning, attendance at bible weeks had peaked, and genuinely charismatic Christianity was on the wane. In the previous couple of decades, there had been clear evidence that what had influenced the Church was in fact God Himself. Many people had been converted, and numbers of churches had entered into spiritual renewal. But things were changing. Existentialism had finally hit ground level with punk music a few years earlier, but punk had also peaked, and the search was on for self-validation in any shape or form that it could be found.
Instead of the Church re-focussing on Jesus and becoming the means of a fresh wave of the Spirit to affect the world, church after church simply soaked in post-punk existentialism and sought to get in step with the self-validating spirit of the age. Now, many churches are no longer the place where men and women are called to come, die to self and live for Jesus, but places where, at the worst, the message has been changed to a call to live for self, love self and help others to do the same.
When the Titanic started sinking, there were two types of heroic activity that came to the fore. The one was shown by crew and passengers, who expended every last ounce of energy to get people into the lifeboats. The other – no less heroic in its own way – was shown by those who accepted that death was inevitable, and who tried to make the last couple of hours of life as comfortable as possible. They did not quite re-arrange the deckchairs, but they played music, sang and served food and drinks as the ship slowly went down.
As this world slowly sinks into an eternal oblivion, disabled in our age by the piercing, chilling collision with existentialist thinking, there is a place for comforting those given up to death – and in its own way it can be quite heroic. Of course we are to feed the hungry or help in any practical way we can, but that is the secondary, not the primary role of the Church. Jesus assigned the job of burying the dead to those who were themselves dead. The Church’s first priority is, and always has been, to get people into the lifeboats.