The same question could be asked on any given Sunday in any church in the land:
Where is everybody?
In the Parish in which I serve there are around 20,000 people; and yet our average Sunday morning congregation in all three of our churches is less than 1% of that population.
It’s easy, and terribly understandable, to get down in the dumps about that. Which is what makes this Sunday morning’s Gospel reading rather good news (S Matthew 14:13-21).
The story about the feeding of the five thousand from a bit of bread and fish is, of course, a Sunday School classic. But there is a great deal in this story for grown-ups, too. At least, this (almost) grown-up finds this story helpful for our times.
The crowd were hungry, so they went to see the disciples about sorting out a picnic. The disciples, however, didn’t think that they had anything to offer the people who were hungry, and so told them to go shopping to get what they needed. Which is as mundane as it is fair enough. Except we’re told that Jesus sees it differently.
Like the disciples, Jesus can see that the people have a hunger. Unlike the disciples, however, Jesus sees the potential of what they have, rather than its limits.
So it is a rather obvious jump I’m making from this story into contemporary life: people still have needs that can’t be met, questions that can’t be answered, fears that won’t be hushed. The problem is that, for all of its glittering offerings, contemporary life doesn’t offer much in the way of satisfying this hunger, except in the most superficial of ways.
Principally, if you have a hunger, then you go and buy something. That, we know, satisfies us for a little while, until the initial buzz wears off, and then we need to buy something else.
Consumerism is a way of living that simply skims the surface of life, making us feel pro-active, yet never allowing ourselves to get too deep, too real. As Dory says time and again in Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming.’
It’s all too easy to fall into, such is its prevalence. We buy clothes that give us an identity, items that give us a purpose. That in itself isn’t really a problem. The rot sets in when we buy the things that can be associated with certain ways of living, without having to commit ourselves to getting to grips with what it means to understand that lifestyle. In this world, money is power; and the more money you have, the more lifestyle options and identities are at your disposal. And let’s be clear, when it comes to consumerism, everything is disposable: once we’re bored, we find a new identity in the next shop down the road. In itself it seems pretty harmless, but it’s just a way of masking all those glorious neuroses and social disorders we all have. And those things always find a way through the masks.
Consumerism isn’t just about thinking I need to go shopping, either. There’s an even darker side that causes people to believe that if they don’t have anything of consumerist value, then they have nothing whatsoever to offer. If you can’t sell it, then it’s worthless.
As well as countless individuals, the church often seems to fall for this one.
It’s too easy to look around and think, no-one comes to church therefore no-one wants what we have, therefore we must dress up what we have so that it looks like something that people want. If we could just turn what we have into something sell-able, consumable, then ‘they’ would come. So let’s dump the Eucharist, the liturgy, the hymnody, buy state of the art music and videos, sofas instead of pews, and a preacher who will make us feel excited and give us the buzz we all need to think we are doing something that works. Let’s make ourselves like that very busy church we read about in a book or saw on the TV; let’s buy the church a new identity.
It’s on this point, I suppose, that I see the story of the fish and the loaves being helpful in a couple of different ways.
Whilst God is not bound by the church’s walls and doctrine, the church has a unique calling in telling the stories of Christ and serving the world with the sacraments. It may only look like a bit of fish and bread to us, but to those who are hungry, it is a feast.
The sacraments allow humanity to enter deeply into themselves, the world and God, in a unique way. Their longevity as sacred actions invites us into history – theirs and ours – with all of its goodness, as well as its shame and horror; the sacraments, as well as our lives, have not always been used for good. Living well doesn’t shrink back from facing our shame. However, because of their sacred nature, they also create space for us to look at our present and future as gift, and how life may be lived with greater joy and deeper sensitivity. Put bluntly, the sacraments really are a means of grace.
That doesn’t mean that the church must never be changed, but that our reasoning to change the Church shouldn’t arise from thinking we have nothing to offer. Rather, we should look at the way we offer the gifts of the church, and ask how we might do that offering in a way that will enable people to hear, see and begin to grasp the wonder of these gifts. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to be something we’re not, or to make the church look like Mcdonalds, but to consider how we’re able to be who we are in such a way that the hungry can see the feast that is shared in Christ, and that there is room around the table for them to join in.
‘Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled….’ (S Matthew 14:19-20)