There were weeks of speculation, and wall-to-wall television coverage. Are we going to stay in Europe, or are we going to leave? Now the result is clear. For some, it brought great jubilation. For others, great sadness. Some even reacted with violence.
I’m not talking about Wales’ success at the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, but about the European Referendum. There’s no question that the result has had enormous political consequences. We already have a new Prime Minister and Chancellor, the Labour party is in turmoil, the nationalists are in uproar, and no-one knows quite was is going to happen next.
But this is not the place for a political discussion. Instead, we can learn from what has gone on, and benefit from some important lessons for the church.
It was obvious on Friday morning that none of the leaders had prepared for a ‘leave’ vote, not even those who campaigned for Brexit. That’s what led to the initial chaos, particularly in the Labour party and between Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. It was a marked contrast with the Bank of England, who announced detailed contingency plans back in March, and dealt calmly with the financial fall-out that followed.
You could argue that it was lack of adequate preparation that brought down the last Labour government. Iraq and Afghanistan may have had a very different legacy if proper plans had been put in place beyond a military victory. Gordon Brown’s premiership may have looked very different if the handover from Blair hadn’t been quite so drawn out and antagonistic.
We need to learn from this. Succession planning is often woefully inadequate in our churches. We rarely have backup plans if something goes wrong (or goes unexpectedly right!). As churches we need to ‘be prepared in season and out of season’” (2 Tim. 4:2), for whatever situations we face.
So what would happen in your church if the pastor suddenly left? Does your church have people it has developed for leadership? Does it have a clear vision of what God wants you to do and how he wants you to do it?
Or what if half-a-dozen local youths were suddenly converted? Is your church ready to disciple them and help them break away from their old way of life? Are your services accessible to those without a Christian background?
Don’t be angry
It was very clear that the referendum made some people very angry. For weeks after the referendum my Facebook feed was full of apparently reasonable people (many of them Christians) frothing at the utter stupidity of those who had voted differently to themselves. Remainers frequently accused Leavers of racism, and Leavers were often gleefully triumphalistic.
Reactions like these can rarely be justified. As believers we ought to be able to deal with disappointment and frustration, and not getting our own way. Our confidence in God’s providence ought to make a difference. Yet too frequently there is little to distinguish us from the world. We do not walk as closely with the Lord as we ought, and when disappointment or trouble strikes, we are adrift. The lesson is to ensure that every day we practice godliness and live by faith.
Take the opportunities
One thing the referendum did reveal is that many perceive there’s an enormous gap between their own struggles and the political classes. Many people feel politicians in Westminster and technocrats in Brussels neither represent their views nor fight for their interests. That thinking explains a large part of the rise of UKIP, is behind the strong support that Jeremy Corbyn is currently enjoying, and explains a good deal of Donald Trump’s popularity in the United States.
Our generation is characterised by a continuing lack of trust for authority figures, a desire for something different, a feeling that things are getting worse not better, and a tendency to focus on what’s best for me rather than on what’s best for everyone.
Some of those factors make Christian witness more difficult. The lack of trust of authority certainly makes preaching more difficult, as many in society are no longer willing to accept the authority of God or the Bible, and certainly reject any authority of the church. The tendency that many have of thinking mostly of themselves and perhaps their own families, also makes preaching the gospel harder, too, as it’s diametrically opposed to Jesus’ summary of the law.
So how should we respond? Clearly we shouldn’t start to preach that God is quite content for us to live our lives in whatever way we want. But the wonder of the gospel is that although God is the ultimate authority figure, he stepped down into our fallen world and lived among us. He is the opposite of a remote leader in their ivory tower. While politicians say they feel our pain and will do something about it, he took our pain and has already done something about it.
Communicating that to our generation means subtle changes in the way we preach and evangelise, but that’s precisely what Scripture demands. We must preach into our generation, and if our nation is changing then so must the ways we communicate the never-changing gospel. I’m not suggesting that we need to abandon tradition in a search to be contemporary. In many places in the UK, people want to rediscover what we once had. A church that was relentlessly contemporary would not connect in those places (just as being relentlessly traditional would likewise fail to connect). The gospel, and therefore the church, is for everyone – whether they’re on the cutting edge or living in the dark ages. Politicians define themselves as progressives or traditionalists – but the church needs to be both.
Remember God is sovereign
Finally, we need to remember that in everything, God is sovereign.
Psalm 46:1-2 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.
In recent decades Christians have tended to be fairly conservative characters – presumably because a lot of so-called progress has actually been harmful to the cause of Christ. But it has not always been so. In earlier times, Christians were the progressives, even the radicals within society. Those periods tended to be periods of great turmoil, and Christians took the opportunity to speak up for Christ, and ended up shaping entire continents with a biblical framework.
I’m no prophet, and I have no idea what the outcome of the Brexit vote will be. I don’t know whether it will be good for Britain, or bad for Britain. But I do know that the uncertainty and worry creates an opportunity for those who preach the gospel of peace. With God’s help we should grasp that with both hands, while trusting our future security not to Prime Ministers or Parliaments, but to the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings.