Preparing to Re-imagine church for today’s culture
The title ‘Pioneer Minister’ formalised a grass roots movement which had been emerging across different church traditions since the late 1990s. It was also a response to the publication of the Church of England’s ‘Mission Shaped Church’ report (2004). The report acknowledged the declining number of people in England participating regularly in Sunday worship, and highlighted the need to develop fresh new approaches to address it.
At around the time the Church of England instituted the Fresh Expressions initiative to facilitate experiments in new forms of church, the URC created a special category ministry post of ‘Emerging Church Pioneer’. The job description stated that “many initiatives referred to as ‘Fresh Expressions’ are in practice a re-packaging of existing understandings of God.” It stated that there was a need to “release someone with practical theological gifts to wrestle with what God might be calling us to do within contemporary British culture… a researcher and practitioner who [could] gather a community and enable them to engage creatively in a journey of faith.” The aim was “for the URC to push its own understanding of what it means to be a church,” and to ask the question:
“Can we, within the United Reformed Church, do church differently, in ways that are true to our Reformed tradition, but also relevant to contemporary culture?”
My task when I was appointed was to re-imagine church. I believed then, and still do, that before we can begin to re-imagine church for the future, it is necessary to understand current realities. I also believe that, unless we respond to the changes in our culture, the future of our churches is in peril.
I would also like to suggest, however, that it is not all bad news. What is fading away is a model of church fit for a past era. In fading away it makes way for a new one, more relevant to today’s context and to generations of potential followers of Jesus.
So first let us recognise some of these harsh realities; but also explore what opportunities they present us with:
- Decline in British church participation has now reached ‘critical levels’.
The Faith Survey has shown that the percentage of the British population now attending church on a given Sunday is 4.8%. Traditional denominations such as the Anglican, Baptist, Roman Catholic and United Reformed churches are all seeing a substantial reduction in numbers, with many closing (faithsurvey.co.uk, 19/12/17).
There are examples amongst both ancient and new forms of Christian community which are growing and thriving. Those brave enough to tackle the issue head on and think creatively are attracting a new generation of Christians. Messy church, cafe church, forest church and new monastic communities are just a few of the current ‘brands’, although they are certainly not accounted for in church attendance statistics. Even less likely to be included in such statistics are the many small ecclesial communities such as the Grace Community in London, faithfully living out their calling, on the fringes of the denominations which spawned them, but entirely outside the margins of statistically-measurable church attendance. Still more beyond the bounds of measurability are the informal ministries of those like Mike Walsh in Manchester, who are growing communities and sharing a faith adventure, but not through formal worship. I might even be counted among them!
- Most children are growing up in a Britain where neither their parents nor grandparents went to church.
While churches struggle to maintain their traditional structures and worship practices in the face of reduced human and fiscal resources, even more profound a change is the absence of any true sense among the majority of the population of what it might mean to be a ‘Christian’. For most British people, the habit of ‘going to church’ has not entered their psyche, and they know very little about Jesus or the Christian faith.
Although this sounds depressing, it does present the church with an opportunity. When I was growing up, the media and those around me were hostile to Christianity, and often practising Christians were hesitant to admit it. However, in the past decade I have found that has changed. Most people outside the church, with whom I converse about faith, do not have enough experience or knowledge of Christianity to accept or reject it. They simply have never encountered it. This experience has turned my assumption – that I would meet hostility when I talk about Jesus – on its head. In fact, most people I meet are either mildly interested or somewhat fascinated by what I have to say.
- The impact of technology and how people process new information. Technological developments have transformed access to information, and the sheer volume of ideas to which people are exposed. Adults under 50 are likely to have been educated, and drawn their ideas from, a wide range of sources, using a variety of research methods (Bradbury, 2013, 202-205). These paradigmatic changes have had a genuine impact on the church’s ability to offer worship and teaching at a level, time and in a style, which are relevant.
New technologies open up exciting new ways to learn about Jesus, explore ancient and contemporary spiritualities, and develop healthy and vibrant worship lives. Those willing to embrace creative ways of worshipping and grow communities of love which enable human flourishing are thriving. They simply look different to the church of the past.
- The impact of the way people form relationships and build memories
A transformation has taken place in the way people form relationships and the way they build memories, both personally and socially. The sociologist Val Gillies suggests that increased freedom from traditional gender roles and familial ties has seen people replacing a sense of “social obligation” with “negotiated intimacies” (2003, 9). Meanwhile while the rise in exposure to other cultures, opportunities to live and work in different places, and the ability to befriend people who live remotely, has resulted in changes in how people perceive kinship ties. John Bradbury suggests that changes in the way people remember means that shared traditions are at risk of being lost as they lose relevance in today’s world. At the heart of this is the loss of interest in, and respect for, buildings, structures, institutions, and doctrines (2013, 202-205).
There is still a need for a sense of belonging, whether that is as part of a local church community or something less traditional, such as a monastic or dispersed community, such as the Northumbria Community, or a community gathered round a subcultural interest, such as the Christian Motorcyclists Association
I recently took part in a plenary, the final question of which was: ‘If you could give one piece of advice to people wanting to grow the church, what would it be?’ One panelist said, immediately and without hesitation:
Go and make a friend, someone you wouldn’t normally be friends with. You are the church, and its only by YOU being in relationship that the church will grow.
An important part of the church’s story is its self-identity as a people living in relationship with God, united with those who have come before those yet to come. Buildings, structures, institutions, worship styles and even doctrines are not what makes the church. What makes the church is people – in relationship. In my view it is this that will carry it through the times of remarkable change in which we live.
Suggested Further Reading:
John P. Bradbury, 2013, Perpetually Reforming: A Theology of Church Renewal and Reform (Edinburgh, T&T Clark), especially pp.175-187
Church of England, 2004, Mission Shaped Church (London, Church House Publishing)
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, 2013, The Shaping of Things to Come (2nd edition) (Grand Rapids, Baker Books)
Val Gilles, 2003, Family and Intimate Relationships: A Review of the Sociological Research (London, ESRC), accessed 5/6/18
Brian D. McLaren, 2016, The Great Spiritual Migration (London, Hodder & Stoughton)
Stuart Murray, 2018, Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (2nd edition) (London, Wipf & Stock)