Thursday, February 07, 2019

The congregation as good news?

So, here I am contemplating a Devon rain-scape, the low sky a single shade of grey, drizzle making the pavements shimmer, and I’m thinking about the church. There are probably a host of reasons for this - not least my role in helping to form minsters at a Baptist college - but chief among them are two recent experiences still reverberating in my mind. 

The first is church on Sunday where in the context of a wonderfully informal cafe setting, we sang a set of bewildering Bethel songs that seemed connected to nothing, not the life experience of the congregation, not the content of the Christian message, not the culture within which this church existed. These people were grieving because a young man associated with them had died on the Friday evening before in circumstances that are far from clear. And having sung the songs, a group left the building to go and pray in the areas the town’s young people hang out and enter whatever conversations might transpire. As people left - including me - it struck me that this is what church is really all about. After we’d gone, the remaining congregants talked and prayed and drank coffee, and shared their pain and bewilderment, again what church is for. 

The second was a half-day conference I had attended a week earlier at King’s College on a new book called The Desecularisation of the City, a collection of essays looking at church growth, the emergence of new churches and the persistence of old ones, across London. The essays in the book tell a single story which could be read entirely optimistically. The persistence of church attendance, the growth in some congregations, the fact that there are twice as many churches in the capital now than in 1979, all suggest that the secularisation thesis, so popular among sociologists from the 1960s onwards - and still staunchly defended by such luminaries as Steve Bruce of Aberdeen - does not tell the whole story. Indeed, maybe the essays in this collection are evidence of desecularisation.

The critical friends who took up the second half of the afternoon did not think so. Secularisation is not just about the numbers attending worship services or the numbers ticking ‘Christian’ in survey boxes. It is also about the enduring influence of religion in cultural and public life. And it is in relation to this that the critical friends were unsure that desecularisation is taking place at all.

One, Daniel Dehanas, is a lecturer in politics and religion at King’s. He has studied the faith journeys of young people in both church and mosque across the capital. He told the story of a significant ministry in south London - significant in the sense that it made a lot of noise about itself - that drew large numbers to the estate on which it was based. Large numbers of young people were affected by the ministry. But the neighbourhood in which the ministry was located seemed entirely untouched by it. For all the numbers being converted or otherwise influenced by the ministry, there seemed little impact on the surrounding estates. Indeed, he seemed to suggest, for all the good news stories contained in The Desecularisation of the City, there seemed precious little evidence that all these new and growing churches were having the kind of cultural or political impact you would expect if genuine desecularisation were taking place.

The other critical friend, historian Michael Ledger-Lomas, suggested that the book told him that SE15 has the largest concentration of African Christianity outside of Africa, but who knew? He and I both live within that London postal district and I agree with him that the growth of these churches is important and tells an interesting story but often the only time they have an impact on their neighbours is when a planning application goes in for a building’s change of use or congestion around people’s homes leads to mutterings.

He suggested that few of the chapters were about identity among the churches featured, what does it feel like to be part of these congregations? He and Dehanas agree that the faith espoused and promoted is very personal, about me and Jesus. But Ledger-Lomas wanted to know how the adherents of these congregations felt about their neighbourhoods. It led to his astute observation that many of these stories are about how attending these churches is often a coping mechanism for migrants of all kinds in a slightly hostile and often difficult world.

There’s so much here that provokes thought. But two issues come to the fore for me. One is about the implied relationship between a congregation and its neighbourhood. Who knows churches, Christians are in their midst? How do they know it? The other is the idea of the congregation as coping mechanism for those who attend, which has a bearing on the palette of music on offer in our churches.

The friendly critics of the book seem to suggest that desecularisation will only be seen to be happening if there is a shift in the culture, the political atmosphere, if the Christian faith returns to a place of central influence over social mores and morality. Perhaps this is what the classical sociological theory would take as evidence of its error. But I wonder if this is a measure we are interested in, a measure of the Kingdom worming its way round our neighbourhoods. When I went out to pray in the town I’m visiting at the moment, I did not expect anyone to notice. I did it in a way that would not attract the attention of anyone but God. And what would the effect of such praying be? Well, when combined with the ongoing presence of members of this congregation with the town’s young people, offering support and encouragement, accompanying them through the pitfalls of adolescence, working with families and schools to help them find themselves in a welter of competing voices, the effect could be profound, life-changing, life-stabilising, a little glimmer of God’s Kingdom. But evidence of deseculariation? I’m not so sure.

Sometimes I think the Kingdom is most present when we hardly notice it. What we notice is human community working well, the vulnerable supported, the voiceless listened to and helped to speak, and the strong learning life lessons from such as these. We see it when an alternative agenda to that espoused and expounded by the world’s elite is evidenced. But I’m not convinced that this would register even the faintest blip on the sociologists’ radar and that what does - mere assemblage of numbers, new locations, recent arrivals forming groups of their own - is not actually that important in Kingdom terms.

Which brings me to the congregation as coping mechanism. As I first heard Ledger-Lomas articulate this, I thought, ‘yeah, that’s right; and it’s not what church is for!’ ‘Coping’ is not a missional term; it is not part of the great commission of the church to go and help people cope. And it is ‘coping’ that often encourages a musical palette that is all about me and what God has done for me, and how he has helped/healed/supported/lifted/enabled (delete as appropriate) me.

But on slightly more mature reflection, I came to see that, of course, the church is a coping mechanism. It is the community of the congregation into which God has set us that does enable us to cope with the vicissitudes of living in a difficult, sometimes hostile world, where putting food on the table and paying the rent and maintaining family relationships is hard. If the congregation is not a coping mechanism, then what on earth is it?

In a book I wrote a while back called Building a Better Body, I argued that church was not about worship, not about singing and all that stuff. And I still believe that. Much of what we sing in church is execrable and people much cleverer and wittier than I have pointed this out (see Pete Ward and Nick Page). It matters what we sing in church, though that is not the point of our gathering, because music touches emotional recesses that conversation often doesn’t. So we need to sing our pain and anger as much as our joy and hope; indeed if worship song writers actually read the Psalms they claim to be emulating, their repertoire of topics would be a good deal bleaker and more earthbound than it currently is.

Maybe music helps us to cope, reminds us of who God is and what he has done for us; and that happens as we listen to performed songs as much as as in community singing. But congregations as coping mechanisms must be much more than this. My congregation must be the place I go to with my pain and bewilderment, the bruises from standing up to the powers that be, from standing with the vulnerable, from giving voice to the mute, for sharing my goods with the destitute. My congregation needs to be the place that helps me to cope with the call of God on my life to be like Jesus which is just too hard to manage on my own. And my congregation must help me to cope with the joys of seeing an exile settled, a court case won (as I heard when writing this), a home found for a homeless family, a teenager shown that life is navigable. In telling these and other stories in and to my congregation, it affirms that what I am doing is what Jesus smiles on and that affirmation tells me that I can do the same in the coming week, that this will be my spiritual and acceptable worship (Rom 12:1).

And, of course, the church I attended on Sunday, coming to terms with the tragic death of a young person, needed to be a coping mechanism for all the people who knew him, all those who had stood with him and his mates in the dark, played games, accompanied him through the turmoil of growing up and now had to cope with his premature death. Of course, praying out on the streets or sitting together and holding their grief before God was what congregations do in these times. The church is undoubtedly a coping mechanism.

I’m not sure such congregations are signs of desecularisation - though I’m really not sure what would be - but I am sure that they are little signs of the Kingdom, tiny evidences that there are groups of people who get what Jesus is about, pockets of resistance to the way of the world, shelters for those who cannot navigate the choppy waters alone, places that rejoice when they see the light of God’s reign break on the horizon.

And it’s still murky here, a slate grey sky darkening as evening draws closer, and my friends are out accompanying young people, and I sense Jesus smiling.