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...


Gordon Gray said...

Just discovered your bloag and I'm very interested in some of your posts. I thought I'd add you to my RSS, but there seems to be no link? Any chance of creating one?

Gordon (formerly of Chislehurst, now in Australia)

Anonymous said...

Hi Simon. Desperately trying to avoid having to do anything constructive in the office this morning.
This last blog reminds me of something I've just read in Andrew Kirk's forthcoming book - he recognises that a majority of the UK population self-describe as 'Christian' or say they believe in God (UK Census & ORB data) but who in reality live lives built on secular assumptions. They live as if God does not matter or make much difference. The term I prefer to use to describe this phenomenon is 'functionally secular'. I am beginning to wonder whether in fact the self-description 'christian' appears to retain utility precisely because the UK is arguably so multi-cultural. In this context, the use of the term 'Christian' is a cultural identifier. It tells you that I am British (therefore christian) and not an Asian Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh.
The relationship of this to ecclesiology? I wonder how different our 'functionally secular' contemporaries are to the 'nominal churchgoers' upon whom Christendom depended?
How does it relate to missiology? Check Kirk's book when it's published.