God is not dead

11 November 2022

Gary Hopkins, Ministry Development Officer

It’s a faithless world. Well, actually a university chaplain will tell you otherwise. They’ll tell you about the numerous faith conversations they have each day. They’ll explain how people want to talk about spirituality and whether there’s more to life.

But this story isn’t just unique to university chaplains. Wherever we find chaplains, the same narrative keeps appearing. People are interested in more. God is not dead. Should we expect anything less? Have we lost faith in God’s prevenient grace?

Talking to chaplains has nourished my faith – from university, prisons, healthcare, residential homes to agricultural, workplace, community, the numerous places where God has called people to come alongside others. The stories they share where there is a real sense of God at work in the world, I can be nothing but optimistic that God is up to something.

A chaplain will tell you that when they step into a community, a space, a place and become really present to those people, something amazing happens: God connects things, inspires things, transforms things. There’s no need to talk ideas or agendas or mission – they’re in it, they’re doing it, they’re noticing God.

I’ve heard stories of students dropping into chaplaincy spaces, initially welcomed by warm hospitality, but soon in deep conversation about all aspects of life. Not on the terms of the chaplain, but on the things that matter to those who find themselves talking to a chaplain. The chaplain is there, walking alongside, opening their senses to new possibilities – just as Jesus did with the disciples on the road to Emmaus.

However, alongside the joy of the stories, there are some challenges. In many places, university chaplaincy has been financially supported by the church, and with reducing resources, there are questions about the future. Similar conversations are happening in other chaplaincy areas. Recently the Centre for Chaplaincy in Education has had its main funding stream pulled which means they can no longer afford to employ staff.

Thankfully, some universities have realized the value of chaplaincy and are stepping in, offering pots of money to fund part-time chaplains, but this is not the case everywhere. Indeed in many chaplaincy areas, lay volunteers are the core.

As I see it, there’s a risk as we look to the future, which isn’t just about how we use our finances. It’s about how we value ministry in its fullest sense. There are challenges to us as a church – across denominations – in how we focus our time, our finances, and our capacity to respond to God’s calling.

The risk, as I reflect upon our life as a church, is that we become too inwardly focused in developing who we are for the future as we respond to the context we find ourselves in. It’s almost natural that we’ll hold onto our resources to keep what we’ve got going. But in some sense that misses what God calls us to be and do. Our joining together as gathered church is to focus us in joining in with God’s mission in the world. Repeatedly we affirm the phrase ‘for the sake of the world’.

Chaplains want to tell the story of chaplaincy – they want to tell the church that God is at work and they’re noticing it. They want to tell others in the church that people are interested in spirituality. God is not dead!

But they also want to share the wisdom they have gleaned from stepping into the world and joining in with God’s mission – you cannot step into new places with new people without being transformed by the experience. Imagine what might happen if more of us stepped out and walked alongside others?

It’s a joy talking to chaplains – and if you’ve never had the privilege of listening, find a chaplain, I’m sure they’d love to share with you. But more than this, as we look to the future, we must not let go of the things that have brought us life as the people of God and the way ministry has been shaped in its fullest sense so that we can reflect God’s love in the world.

As we explore vocation and the callings of our churches in mission, remember the wisdom we have in roles such as chaplaincy. As we feel stretched by the challenges, avoid the risk of looking entirely inside in an attempt to maintain what we have – and notice what God might be calling us to be and do ‘for the sake of the world’.

This piece originally appeared in the Methodist Recorder, August 2022