The rules of engagement
Settlers of Catan is a Board game we often play at the Manse when the boys visit, along with whatever friends they bring. I secured a playing card version for use on our trip to visit Philip in China over the summer.
Players play the part of ‘settlers’ who establish colonies on the imaginary island of Catan. The player, whose colonies expand sufficiently to gain a predetermined number of points, is declared the winner. In pursuit of this goal, each player must secure and spend resources, which come in the form of cards. There are fixed rules as to what resource cards are required to grow a settlement. To build a basic settlement requires brick, wood, wool and grain. To build a road requires wood and brick. To expand a settlement to a city requires three ore and two grain. You get the idea. The amounts are fixed, and it is these rules which establish the framework for the player to ‘live’ in the game and struggle against the other players. The game is competitive and various strategies may be deployed in an effort to thwart the plans of opponents. Huffs are not unknown!
You might ask: but why do you need wood and brick to build a road? Won’t other things do? Why do you need only certain specific resources to establish a settlement? It would be more convenient if I could use what is to hand. The answer is that these are the rules of engagement, as it were. This is how it works. With these specific principles the struggle to win in Catan is conducted. The world of Catan operates only on the basis of these specific rules of engagement. The players are not free to change them.
Let me now use this as an illustration. In the Christian life we are called to a struggle. Since the cataclysm of The Fall, there has been a mighty conflict between the Kingdom of God and the forces of darkness. In the Garden of Eden we read of a time when God’s little kingdom, involving Adam and Eve, came under grave threat through the malign influence of the serpent, and they are seduced into rebellion. Yet even as the taste of rebellion is turning sour in their mouths, God is pronouncing a curse on the evil one and foretelling an epic struggle that will unfold down the years of human history:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
It is a foretelling of the coming of the Messiah, yet it also intimates a conflict that will be waged down the ages; a conflict in which the Church is involved. It is a struggle in which there are rules of engagement, and those rules of engagement are very clear. We are called to a spiritual struggle, in which we must deploy spiritual resources - the Word of God and prayer. It is in His Word that God has chosen to lodge His power; and it is in prayer that we exercise our discipleship responsibility.
Too often the church is tempted to use the weapons of the world in the face of the struggle to which we are called. The result is abject failure. Yet, when we yield ourselves to the call of following Christ, we should naturally heed the rules of engagement, and be a people of prayer (praying together) and gathering in a citadel of the Word.
Patrick Smith, of Sandyford Henderson Church in Glasgow, wrote a splendid letter to ‘Life and Work’ in response to an article about the decline of the church. He has given me his permission to quote it:
‘I know a church which has been vacant for the past three years but which has seen a 30% increase in its membership.
It is a very ordinary church. If you were to attend any of the services you would go away thinking there was nothing remarkable about it. Very like lots of other churches. Not a big church. 200 members when the previous minister retired in 2011. He had done a good job but there were fears that when he left things would fall apart. Such fears are fairly normal in such a situation. The elders decided not to appoint a locum and so for the past three years the preaching Sunday morning and evening has been done by some ministers kindly leaving their own congregations to help out and some retired ministers.
At the start of the vacancy the Church adopted as its motto ‘Apart from God we can do nothing.’ And the people prayed week by week. Now the membership is 260 odd. Some people have died in these three years and so more than 60 must have joined. Some have transferred from other churches but most of those who have joined have done so by profession of faith.
The members are as astonished as anyone at what has happened. They would say that it has had very little to do with them. All they did was pray to God and look to him to answer.
But if such an ordinary church can be changed like this then surely there is hope for any church. Remember these words: ‘if my people will humble themselves and pray then I will hear and will heal their land.’ (Deuteronomy 7:14). No magic formula, just the grace of God. Be encouraged!
Be encouraged indeed. And be challenged to heed the rules of engagement.
Yours in Christ