Friday, September 30, 2005

Love your neighbour

Phin has spotted the major weakness of my new mission strategy - to have more parties - which is that we don't know our neighbours. We live fragmented lives; for many of us our homes are dorms we return to at night to sleep in, our lives are lived where we work. Increasingly, we even play on our own - solitary hours on gym machines fighting the signs of aging.

This is a parody, I appreciate - though I'm guessing it's not far from the truth for many of us and those who live on our streets.

I guess where I live, life is slightly more settled. People tend their gardens, wash their cars, walk their dogs. It's possible to see the same person regularly and hence actually meet them. My next door neighbour is good at parties - any excuse and she's cracking open bottles and inviting people to celebrate - and she gives me a clue to how it could be done.

Pick a date - say Halloween or bonfire night (in the UK) or kids starting school/university or changing jobs - run off a number of invites for your immediate neighbours (15 houses/flats in your street/block), say that you're having a party to celebrate whatever it is, everyone's welcome, bring a bottle. Obviously, we'd need to invest in some drink and nibbles - possibly even a BBQ and fireworks for bonfire night. Post the invites through people's doors and see what happens...

In some neighbourhoods it will at least start a conversation - neighbours might call round asking if we're serious, what they should bring, can they bring their children or a friend.

I think for it to work, we've got to be totally flexible - whatever our neighbours want to do, we ought to let them do (providing it's legal and doesn't endanger the lives of everyone there!). What we might find is that people really are looking for connection with other people, they really are isolated and would like to know their neighbours. If we achieve nothing else, we'll have created some social capital - and that's a result.

Sometimes I think Christians want to be religious all the time when what we need are people who'll model being human beings in a world that's lost the template. After all, Jesus came to renew us in our humanity, to restore what sin has left defaced and mangled. He was always at parties as far as I can tell, a nightmare for religious people, but a model of what it means to be a human being in the image of God to everyone else.

If anyone's tried this, let me know how it went. When I do it, I'll post the outcome...

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Is church too hard?

Mark in his comment on my last post hits the nail on the head when he suggests that needing to restate our vision every three months is a product of our modern targets-obsessed culture.

Last night I outlined the strategy I think the church should be adopting to reach people in response to that dreaded question - 'where are we going?'

Part of my answer was so complicated that even I lost track of it! But the core answer was really simple - 'let's have more parties', I said. 'Let's invite our neighbours into our homes for a social event with no agenda beyond having conversations with the people who live around us.'

Let's do this a couple of times and then let's touch base with one another and ask 'what did we talk about? What did our neighbours want to talk about? What were their concerns and interests?'

Having done this, we might be in a position to think about how we share our faith with our neighbours in the light of their interests and concerns.

It's not rocket science. I've said it before. But I'm more and more convinced it's something we need to try.

I'm haunted by the fact that people under a certain age know very little about the church and the Christian faith and that people over a certain age know rather too much. Most of the people in our church are over a certain age and assume everyone knows as much about church as they do. More than that, they think everyone else is interested in the church and what it has to say.

What we need to learn is that not only do they not know anything about the church and the Christian faith, they are not interested in it either. All Bob mayo's research points in this direction. I think we'd have to conclude the same from David Voas' work.

But this isn't a bad thing. It just means we need to communicate with them in a different way to the way many of us have grown up with. Hence the need for parties where we listen and pour drinks, pass canapes or sausage rolls and hear our neighbours speaking...

Who knows, we might just hear the voice of God.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Dreaded questions...

There are two questions I dread being asked as a minister. The first is 'what exactly do you do?' We'll not go there!

The second is 'where are we going as a church?' It comes in many variations. I remember being asked by a very serious young woman newcomer in my previous church 'what is your vision for the church and how can I get on board with it?' I wilt before such interrogation!

But I've been asked twice today 'where are we going?' so it's made me think.

As usual, it's also made me a little obtuse. You see, I'm not sure the church ought to be going anywhere. We're here doing our stuff Sunday by Sunday. More than that, we care for people, visit the sick, teach the young, provide a place for the generations to meet each other, offer spiritual direction and counsel and pray for one another and our neighbours.

Where should we be going, exactly?

But I know this is a question about strategic planning and I need to take it seriously. After all one of the reasons why people get involved in church is that they feel they can make a contribution, be useful and make a difference.

The trouble is that the church is not a business, its members are not my salesforce. So I can't say, our aim is that this year we'll contact 500 new households, convert 10% of them, recruit 50 more children to our Sunday School and baptise 30 new believers. Not that it wouldn't be great if that happened! And I know ministers who'd say 'we're praying for 50 newcomers this year.'

Well, we had over 100 newcomers in the past year. But before you get too excited, we are the same size as we were this time last last year, so we obviously leak. Or maybe that's just the natural cycle of suburban life - people come and people go.

But where are we going? I would like to see more families joining the church - people with children at home aged between 30 and 55. In my mind I have the committed, well-adjusted, hospitable and gifted couples who take family life in their stride and have time to spare for church activities.

But who am I kidding? What I want to do is reach the 30-55s who aren't currently aware of their need for a relationship with God, who are struggling like the rest of us keeping too many balls to count airborne and who have no desire to help me build a church.

The thing is that as soon as I start to think about where we're going a mass of contradictory goals come into view. I want more people who would love to serve God in caring for people, hosting groups, sharing the load in Sunday school and other areas of the church's ministry. At the same time, I want to build a place where burned out Christians can find refuge from the demands of an ecclesiastical machine that has a habit of sucking Christians in and spitting them out all dry, wizened and used up. And then I want to build a community where those who have no interest in God at the moment are made to feel intrigued about what he might have to offer them because of what they see in the lives of Christians around them.

So, where are we going? I guess this has always been the dilemma for churches. It's the old tension between maintenance and mission, between caring for the flock and searching for the lost sheep.

I'd like to think that as a result of what we do, more people will know Jesus this time next year than currently do at the moment. How will that happen? Ah... That is what the question 'where are we going?' is actually asking. Sadly, I don't know the answer to that one...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Are we really family?

These days we tend to see the New Testament's use of family language to describe fellow Christians - especially brother and sister - as conventional. Indeed gone are the days that Christians in the UK routinely refer to each other as brother or sister.

But for the early Christians this was anything but routine. One of the revolutionary aspects of their new faith was that through Jesus people who were not related became kin. That Paul thought this was worth stressing is seen in the fact that in 1 Corinthians, a letter written to fractious and divided community, he uses sibling language 39 times to stress the closeness of the bond that exists between Christians. He especially uses it when he wants to draw attention to behaviour that is inappropriate to our new family status - such as in 8:8-13 where he uses the word brother four times.

At the end of Romans in a list of greetings to various people involved in various house church groups across the city, he also uses the language of family - Phoebe is 'my sister', Rufus' mum has 'been a mother to me also', many in the list are described as 'beloved' - hardly the language we use of work colleagues.

And he uses it to stress the need to welcome one another (15:7). The situation is probably this: many of those named - especially the Jewish ones - are Jewish Christians who have recently returned to Rome having left in the late 40s when the Jewish community or parts of it were expelled from the city by Claudius. It's possible that those expelled were mainly Jewish Christians because historians of the day tell us that the expulsion happened following disturbances instigated by 'Chrestus' (possibly an early Latin miscontrual of Christ).

Now they were returning and needed to welcomed back into the predominantly Gentile house churches that were thriving in the city. Paul says these people - of different race, background and dietary behaviour - are brothers and sisters, family, kin and so should be welcomed with open arms and offered hospitality. It is possible that Romans 12-15 has been written with this in mind to ensure the family life of the churches in Rome is built up and the newcomers welcomed and included in the various groups that met around Rome.

For us it reminds us that we are family. If we are followers of Jesus, we are blood relatives of all the others followers of Jesus - whether we get on with them or not. We need to welcome one another, be hospitable, seek to help where we can and not discriminate against those who are new or different from us.

God gloriously calls us to be one family in his son Jesus - as Paul reminds us in his great Bible study in Galatians 3 which culminates in the ringing declaration of 3:28.

It also has something to say about church and post-church groups which I'll reflect on in a sbsequent post.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Latte, liturgy and living together

People leave church for all kinds of reasons. But one of the key ones - according to the published research and conversations I've had - is the behaviour of other Christians. People want to know Jesus but a few years of carping, criticism and condemnation by members of the church can be very waring and cause people to leave.

The sad thing is that many of these people are reticent to try another church because they assume the same thing will happen again.

Worse, the experience can corrode their faith. After all, if this is the way Christians behave, maybe that says something about the faith; maybe it means that it doesn't work, that it's not really true.

Jesus talked about those who cause little ones to stumble - something about mill-stones and lakes, I seem to remember. Paul wished that those troubling the Galatians would emasculate themselves (Galatians 5:12). Such talk makes you wince and wish for caveats until you've talked to some of the people whose faith has been shipwrecked by older brothers and sisters.

This is why Paul goes on to urge his Galatian readers to love each other or they risk biting, devouring and destroying one another.

Often our judgmental attitudes mask insecurities that we are afraid to admit or are born of wounds inflicted on us by others during our Christian lives. We perpetuate a cycle of harmed and harming.

So, here's an idea: if there's someone in your church that you don't get on with, who seems more likely to tear you down than build you up, invite them to join you for a latte (or whatever trendy beverage takes their fancy) and a chat about life (especially the things you have in common). It's much harder to knock chunks out of someone you know, whose vulnerabilities you've seen, who've passions and struggles you've shared.

Of course, it might make no difference but it's only set you back the back the price of a beverage.

This is a liturgical act - Romans 12:17-21 in action - and as such might bring God's light and love into situations and relationships which badly need both.

It's just a thought

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Leaders of the free world

As the leaders of the free world - and those parts of the world under their heel - gather in New York, Elbow come storming over the horizon with their third album appropriately called Leaders of the free world.

For the uninitiated Elbow are the cream of the current crop of bands from England's North west. In writer Guy Garvey, they boast a songsmith of rare talent and sensibility.

In many ways this album picks up where A Cast of Thousands left off. Yet in so many ways it is an enormous leap forward both lyrically and musically. The lush textures and spare arrangements create a backdrop to musings that pack a real emotional punch.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Life beyond church

Thanks to those who commented on my last post. What particularly got folk was this notion of not being likely to continue believing once you've stopped belonging - which was something David Voas suggested in his paper.

In a subsequent email, he did suggest that he was referring specifically to Christian teaching that says attending church is vital. Clearly if you stop attending, you stop subscribing to that part of the package. He agrees with Richter and Francis that stopping church attendance is not the same as losing faith.

But he adds two important observations. One is that Robin Gill at Kent uni has produced evidence showing that people who don't attend church tend to lose their Christian beliefs over time. The other is that Steve Bruce - an advocate of a thorough-going version of the secularisation thesis - argues that people say they still believe but that those beliefs have clearly become less important to them otherwise they wouldn't have stopped attending.

However, I'm still inclined to think that there are a lot of people who've stopped going to church because it's dull, doesn't help them with their daily lives, takes up vast amounts of time and energy on trivialities or teaches too narrow a version of the Christian faith (all the reasons Jamieson puts his finger on) but who have not stopped believing in the core doctrines of the faith. Indeed they want to carry on believing.

So, we come down to a debate over what constitutes church. For the sociologists, the answer is the institution identifiable on every street corner of the land with structured services at set times and a membership regime that means you're either in or out. And this is fair enough. But it's not what the New testament means by church.

So, many who have stopped attending the institution might well be part of informal Christian gatherings - whether these are loosely constituted post-church groups or meals with believing friends that involve chat about Christian things and might even end with a prayer. These gatherings don't show up on the sociologists' radar for obvious reasons. But they clearly happen all over the place and often help to reinforce the faith of those who've stopped attending institutional church.

Such groups are networked in New Zealand and I gather Alan Jamieson is publishing a follow up to A Churchless Faith soon that argues that such groups are essential to those who've left church but who five years on are still maintaining a Christian faith.

Keep the conversation going...

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Sociologists and faith

I've been reading some very interesting work by a sociologist called David Voas. He and a colleague, Alasdair Crockett, have been looking at data from the British Household Panel Survey and British Social Attitudes Survey searching for insight into Christian belief and church belonging in contemporary Britain.

For many years lots of us have been attracted to Grace Davie's suggestion that while church attendance is falling, Christian belief is still important in British society. More people believe than belong and Davie's 1994 book Religion in Britain Since 1945 was subtitled Believing without Belonging.

It is this notion that Voas and Crockett set out to challenge. And their article in the February 2005 issue of the Journal Sociology 'Religion in Britain: neither believing nor belonging' is pretty convincing. I have to add that as a working pastor, it's also pretty sobering and thought-provoking.

One of their key findings delivered using a telling image from the science of radioactivity is 'in Britain institutional religion now has a half-life of one generation.' This is based on data that indicates that children from families where two parents go to church are around 48% likely to become church-going adults themselves. Where only one parent attends church regularly (by which they mean once a month), the outcome is halved.

This gives our church's current thinking about and search for a youth worker a certain edge!

But another comment in the article also caught my eye. Talking about data that suggests levels of belief mirror those of belonging, Voas and Crockett say: 'If people choose not to belong it is a clear sign that they do not believe religious doctrine. Whether or not they are confident that God exists, it is apparent at the very least that they doubt the Almighty much minds whether they spend Sunday in church or in the shops.'

This assertion seems to contradict the findings of Richter and Leslie in Gone But not Forgotten and Alan Jamieson in A Churchless Faith. But I wonder whether it's an observation we need to take seriously. It's possible that what these guys are writing about is a transitional phenomenon. Some people leave church for relational and institutional reasons with their faith in core doctrines in tact but over time if they don't re-engage with a Christian group or church, those beliefs decay (to use the radioactive image).

It is, of course, possible that church leavers are being polite when they suggest that they still believe in Jesus, it's just Christians they can't stand. And, of course, mission thinkers have for a generation asserted that people find Jesus attractive but don't want the church. But Voas and Crockett might have unearthed something we don't want to accept: that there is a much closer correlation between belief and belonging and that when people choose not to belong, they are saying that they have ceased or are ceasing to believe - at least in the way they used to.

This has some implications for post-church groups. I'm going to a meeting on Friday about those, so I'll blog more on this over the weekend.

There is good news hidden in all this, however. Bob Mayo from Ridley Hall, Cambridge, has researched the beliefs of generation Y and found they don't have any - at least, they don't have beliefs or views about the Christian faith. This is good news. They are not disillusioned spiritual searchers who've tried Christianity, found it wanting and are looking elsewhere. They are people who don't know the story, are not hostile to it and if told it in language they understand, will give it a fair hearing.

That too has implications for our search for a youth worker...

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Surviving beyond the church

As I said, a highlight of Greenbelt for me was meeting Jenny McIntosh from Spirited Exchanges. This is the network that grew out Alan Jamieson's research published in A Churchless Faith. It was fascinating to hear her approach and meet Sally, one of the church leavers who has been involved over recent months.

Since writing Why Bother with Church, I've been aware of the need for such a network in the UK and have been talking about it with a number of mates. It seems likely that Greenbelt will take the lead in this - which is fine with me.

I had coffee yesterday with a young woman who has struggled with church over recent years because of a breakdown in relationships and a chasm between what churches focus on and her ordinary, everyday life. Church ought to be a place of healing, somewhere the walking wounded can find acceptance and support. All too often it isn't.

On Monday at Greenbelt I went to a panel discussion where people shared their struggles with church. As a pastor, it was sobering to hear story after story of how church has made believing harder. As I listened, I was reminded that in my first discussions with the church I now serve - some two and a half years ago - I had spoken of the need for lean-to groups that would help those who feel little connection with church as we currently do it to connect with Jesus and see how a life of faith could be a path to wholeness for them.

This week, I presented a paper to my eldership proposing that we establish such a group for those struggling with church (such a group is different from lean-to groups established with the purpose of introducing people to faith in Jesus - somethin g I'd also like to do). So watch this space...

I propose this with some reservations, however. Many post-church groups are a forum for the big whinge, people gathered to tell their stories of how they've been misunderstood, abused, let down and failed by the church. If that's all that happens they can be quite toxic places.

In our conversation about Spirited Exchanges, we reflected on its role in helping people to put their lives back together. Sally spoke of the group's role as a kind of detox. I asked her to identify the toxin - was it the church and her experience of it or the gospel, the faith that the church rather imperfectly embodies?

It strikes me that this is the crunch issue. The kind of post-church group that I'm interested in is for those who still feel that they want to take Jesus seriously but who can't find him in church for all kinds of reasons. I appreciate that for some disentangling Jesus from church is difficult, that their struggles have been caused by the fact that the church has in some way obscured or distorted Jesus in the way they have taught the faith and behaved towards one another.

For this reason, it seems to me that post-church groups ought to be avowedly Trinitarian and open to links with other Christian groups (including churches). As a pastor, I think my role is to present everyone complete, whole in Jesus (Colossians 1:28). So any post-church group I'm involved in must have as its goal helping people to reconnect with Jesus and continue growing in him, being transformed by him from one degree of glory into another.

We'll see what happens. I'm interested in hearing from anyone - especially those in South East London - who'd find such a group (either physical or virtual) helpful.