Reflections on the census- the end of Christendom…

a church under reconstruction?

So, there have been a number of articles and opinion pieces reflecting on the recent 2011 census data, and what it tells us about the nature of religious belief in the UK. Here are some of the head liners in case you missed them;

• The number identifying themselves as Christians is down 13 percentage points. In 2001, 72% (37.3 million) called themselves Christians. In 2011 that had dropped to 59% (33.2 million).

• Interestingly, Christianity is not down everywhere. Newham, Haringey, Brent, Boston and Lambeth have all shown increases in the Christian population.

• The number identifying themselves as having no religion has increased by 10 percentage points from 15% (7.7 million) in 2001 to 25% (14.1 million) last year.

In response, Humanist Nick Cohen, writing in The Guardian, said this;

The number of people who say they have no religion jumped from 15% in the 2001 census to 25% in 2011. If the remaining 75% were believers, this leap in free-thinking would be significant but not sensational. But those who say they are religious are not faithful to their creeds, or not in any sense that the believers of the past would have recognised. Church attendance is in constant decline. Every year that passes sees congregations become smaller and greyer…

…When millions of people tell the census takers they are “Christians”, therefore, they are muttering the title of a childhood story they only half remember. What is more, their spiritual “leaders” know it. Long before the census figures were in, you could hear the screams that always accompany ideologies and institutions history is leaving behind…

…while everything is changing in British society, nothing is changing in the British establishment. England still has a “national” church – even though in 2010 its average weekly attendance was down to 1,116,100 (or 1.8% of the nation’s population). Twenty-six Church of England bishops are automatically granted seats in the House of Lords to support or oppose any legislation they please. On top of the decaying heap sits Elizabeth II: a grumpy priestess-queen, who in theory at least is the state religion’s “supreme governor”. In the education system, almost one-third of state schools are run by religious authorities (and Michael Gove will ensure that number will rise).

This humanist perspective is not without merit. Much of the institutions of religion in the country are indeed relics of a time when religious power was inseparable from the power of the State. Church and Government were connected by bonds at every level. The Church marked out comings, our joinings and our endings. The shape of the religious calendar became the shape of our working life. The very law of the land was approached through (an often flawed) Biblical interpretation.

But this link between ordinary people and institutional Church has been in decline for years. Perhaps the last vestige of this kind of Christendom in the life of the UK was that people who otherwise had no connection to Church, and no active faith journey, would still describe themselves as ‘Christian’. People did this almost by some kind of inherited instinct. The be Christian was to be decent, British, middle class, well mannered, one of ‘us’.

However,  the rigidity exhibited by some parts of the religious hierarchy is increasingly at odds with the culture that it is part of. There are the totemic issues- homosexuality, gender equality. There is the lack of a critical or analytical voice in a time of consumerist economic meltdown. There is the swing towards ultra conservatism in the Catholic Church, and all the sexual abuse scandals that diminish all organisations of faith.

The time for hand wringing and desperate attempts to preserve what Church used to be is long gone, although there are still people who have a passion for preserving the traditions of our institutions. And perhaps we should be grateful to them as they are a repository for our organisational memories. Without them, we lose our connection to tradition, and all the rich variety of previous experience. But it is not enough for faith to be in a museum cage. It is not enough for faith to be an abstract historical curiosity.

I have been chewing on what this might mean for those of us who still try to follow in the way of Jesus. Here goes;

Lies and Statistics.

It is perfectly possible to understand these figures as a reduction in nominal Christianity. A reduction in people identifying with a label that has no relevance to life. In this sense, perhaps there has been no real change in the last ten years- apart from the words we chose to describe ourselves with.

The word ‘Christian’.

It is however significant that people no longer what to wear this as a badge. It is a devalued word, a word that appears to have gathered to it lots of connotations that people have less use for. Ideas of stuffy right-wing judgementalism. A word that has no relevance in the here and now. It is a word that even I use to describe myself with some discomfort. But a decision to walk in the way of Jesus is not an easy choice- he was very clear about that. It is a decision to make an ever new daily adventure, and this is so much more than wearing a comfortable middle class badge.

Incarnation.

The Church is not the place where God resides in these islands- rather he lives in us. The Hebrew Temple was replaced by the human heart. He took on flesh and dwelt amongst us. In and over and through. Along with us and despite us. In the cracks of everything we are. This is not a numbers game- who cares how big your corporation has become?  This is now to be tested in new ways, in a new context.

Mission.

At some point, probably around the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the Church became an instrument of the state. The mission of the Church was the mission of the State. God was co-opted by the people in power. We then spent Millenia trying to disentangle the mess of this- movements would rise, then they would fall, or become assimilated. But perhaps we are now in new territory- the mission of God can be set free again in the minds of we his followers. It is not to the strong that the Kingdom belongs, but to the week, the poor, the broken.

Finally however, I find myself taking a more sociological perspective. If nominal religion anchored in the State is in decline this may be no bad thing for faith- but I still wonder if it may be a bad thing for the State.

The Church contains us, or used to. Old Emile Durkheim captured this well- he suggested that people need to be part of something bigger- to be integrated and linked and that when this begins to break down the end result is anomie (a lack of social norms) leading to a time when the anchors and moorings that hold us together are gone.  He believed that anomie is common when the surrounding society has undergone significant changes in its economic fortunes, whether for good or for worse and, more generally, when there is a significant discrepancy between the ideological theories and values commonly professed and what was actually achievable in everyday life- which to my mind describes British society in 2012 pretty well. (There is a great article discussing some of these ideas here.)

Durkheim thought that religion was one of the key social mechanisms that created these bonding social norms. However, he also thought that these old bastions of society where in decline- that the institutions of faith were dying. However at the same time he also thought that they were being replaced by new forms of sacred passions.

The question is- where are these to be found in our society? It is easy for cynics like me to rail against consumerism, ephemeral celebrity entertainment and post modern fluidity of connection and belief, but the story is more complicated.

There is a groundswell of goodness in British society. Some of is might well have roots in Christian traditions and ideas, but we see a turning towards simple living, small community life, and a rising up against the power of the big banks through the Occupy Movement.

We the followers of Jesus always have to find our own mission, our own Peregrinatio.  Here is my prayer for the journey;

Lord stain me with salt

Brine me with the badge of the deep sea sailor

I have spent too long

On concrete ground.

If hope raises up these tattered sails

Will you send for me

A fair and steady wind?

The ‘Shaping Of Things To Come’ event, reflections 2…

missional

Here is the word of the moment (from Michael Frost);

Excarnation

…defined as the burial practice of removing the flesh and organs of the dead, leaving only the bones. More of this later.

Frost gave a whistle stop tour around what he saw as cultural trends. He suggested that he was less concerned about the process of getting people back to Church, and more about the irrelevance of church within our cultural context; in particular, the fact that we have failed to pose the right questions, or to articulate alternatives.

He used the following analogies;

The Gate Lounge (Airport waiting room)

(An idea pinched from Martin Baumann.) The suggestion is that increasingly we engage with our world as tourists, in a place of constant transition. We live in, and create, sterile artificial environments that we pass through quickly, always on the way to the next non-real, commercially curated experience. This leads to a kind of life where we skim over the surface, living a commodified experience that lacks satisfaction.

It also leads to a disconnection from place, community, belonging.  Frost mentioned the film ‘Up in the air’, which I reviewed previously on this blog here.

Screen culture

We are increasingly a culture whose head is down- always looking at our tiny screens. Life is lived in the abstract, and we develop two selves- a screen self, and a real self.

Frost mentioned the novel ‘The Lost Memory Of Skin’, about a man who is addicted to internet pornography, but has never had real sex.

Dualism

Here the church may have contributed to its own disconnection, as we have presented a polarised perspective on everything- heaven/hell,  earth/heaven, world/church, flesh/spirit. Jesus is presented as living in the soul and waiting in heaven, not incarnate- flesh blood and spit here, right now.

Likewise church has followed the same disembodification as the rest of our culture- we learn through sermon podcasts rather than the process of experiencing and testing truth in community. We create individual worship experiences in auditoriums with a stage at the front and us, eyes closed, seperated from those around us.

Back to the word, ‘excarnate’. We human beings are made to experience the infinite depth of what we inhabit. We are tingling flesh on tingling flesh. Strip away these parts of what we are, and all we become are dry bones.

Frost described a communion service he once attended- a large empty church with the floor covered in black plastic. In the middle of the room was a mountain of stinking, oozing, rotten rubbish- the human kind- every kind of filth. The putrid juices ran out in rivers into the room and the communicants struggled to stand clear, and to cope with the smell.

Then two people in swimming costume entered the room, and walked towards the filth. They waded in, first ankle deep, then up to their waists. From there they led a service of communion.

The imagery is astringent. We follow Jesus- God-who-took-on-flesh, whilst at the same time living a world that increasingly avoids touch.

I am not sure whether you find this analysis of current cultural trends to be exaggerated? Frost is of course an agitator, but I there is something in what he describes that make me sit up and pay attention. Whilst engaging with our culture, seeking to understand and participate within it, we also have a duty to understand the Zeitgeist, and where necessary, to oppose- and perhaps most importantly (in the way of Jesus) to oppose by example.

Frost described how his community (Small boat, big sea) are seeking to do things differently. They have agreed to apply this method, and to hold each other accountable for it. Each week they will;

Bless three people- with words, gift, favour

Eat with three people- sharing their table as an image of Kingdom

Listen deliberately

Learn from the life of Jesus

‘Sent’ consider life as a mission

In this way, we might not exist only in our ‘head’ (excarnate) but encounter God in practice- in the mess of real flesh.

Gods game plan…

 

Will has been attending a Christian youth club being run in Dunoon by some mates of mine. He is loving it- that lovely combination of chaos, faith, music and food.

They gave him a Bible the other day and it has been sitting on our coffee table staring at me ever since- this one;

 

It is entitled ‘God’s Game Plan- the athlete’s Bible. Game Ready- get up, gear up, step up.” Inside are Bible references carefully chosen to support the athlete in areas of competition, performance and ‘game plan.’

Everything about it makes me cringe. The marketing exercise, the easy use of selective scripture as ‘performance enhancement’, all that ‘Jesus can make me a winner’ stuff- the mashing up of the message of Jesus with the American Dream.

Then there is this idea of ‘God’s Plan’- some kind of golden path that he has laid out for each of us, which we then have to discern through the application of good Bible study, and woe betide us if we stumble off it. I think this is a damaging idea of who God is- rather what I hope for is a God of new starts, of hope, of encouragement for us to live beautiful lives committed to the love of others.

But I said none of this to Will- he loves his new Bible. I am also very grateful to those folk who chose it for him as something suitable and encouraging.

Also, because we are not attending ‘Church’ regularly these days (as distinct from ‘church’) it is great to see him involved in other things. I remember a conversation years ago when we were discussing how we might best introduce our kids to the great mysteries of faith within the context of ’emerging/missional’ small groups. We all had lots of anxieties about whether we might be somehow depriving them of something important by being outside a large structured formal organisation, with Sunday schools, youth events and a group of peers going on a similar journey.

The conclusion we reached then was a series of questions going something like this;

  1. Do these structured institutional means of creating faith in our young people actually work? Do we create adult disciples? Research might indicate a low success rate over the last few decades. (See summary of Church attendance figures here.)
  2. If we as adults are modelling a dissatisfaction with those organised structures – the typical drive home deconstruction and the sharing of frustrations. What does this teach our kids if we are not prepared to work for something new, something honest and true to who you are as individuals and family?
  3. Is it time for we parents to take responsibility for making a spiritual journey with our own kids rather than handing that responsibility to others?
  4. Finally, we noted that in this fractured, post modern, mass communicating world, people (particularly young people) rarely have one source of information on any given subject. Rather there are multiple sources of information, from a range of physical, virtual and on line media. So it is with information about God. We might seek to control this – to make sure that information given corresponds to our own orthodoxy – but the best we can hope for is to keep channels of discussion open about all those many strands that bombard us.

So it is with our kids. They are asking their own questions about faith- assisted (hopefully) by our example, participation in Aoradh events, as well as formal (even Evangelical) events like Christian camp weeks, and youth clubs like this one. And if this means that he is exposed to the kinds of religion that I have found difficult then so be it- I need to just trust that it is is all in the mix.

Because God’s game plan is after all beyond my understanding.

‘Making missional communities’ podcasts…

Graham sent us a copy of the recording of our talk about making small missional communities at Calvary Christian Fellowship near Preston.

We were invited to take a road trip to describe something of our experiences with Aoradh, and we structured the discussion into three main sections ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘up’ with me talking about some of the background and theory (such as it is!) behind what we do, and Michaela describing our activities in a bit more detail. We tried to be really honest about the difficult bits as well as all the great stuff.

I have uploaded it as a series of podcasts, partly because other folk in Aoradh might be interested to know what we said about them, and also because the issue of how we make and sustain community in these fluid postmodern times seems to be pretty important, so others might like to hear something of our story.

You should be able to download the different sections on these links, but I am told that ‘ourmedia’ sometimes takes a little while to make uploads ‘live’, so you may need to come back a little later…

Making missional communities 1

Making missional communities 2

Making missional communities 3

Making missional communities 4

Making missional communities 5

Making missional communities 6

Making missional communities 7

Making missional communities 8

Worship music remix 4- culture…

Worship music is the cultural carrier of faith.

Or perhaps worship music is the carrier of culture into faith.

If either of these statements are true then what we sing together in churches is formational, fundamental. Our songs shape our belief, our worldview and our action in subtle and profound ways. Perhaps it is another one of those times when the medium might become the message.

What comes first, the culture or the song? Instinctively we would have to say the culture, but the idea of culture is one that demands a little more examination. I am using the term not to describe the shared tenants/creeds of the Christian faith but rather to describe something of the shared context, deep assumptions and instinctive reactions that people tend to converge upon in our collectives.

Culture is so powerful a force on how we live and think about ourselves that it can come to be indistinguishable from creed. I think I need to demonstrate this with a couple of examples.

 

I have spent some time in America, doing some worship music with a Southern Baptist Convention. There was, shall we say, a degree of cultural friction, but it was on the whole a fantastic experience. What was obvious to me as an outsider to this culture was the degree to which expressions of faith became interwoven with a whole set of wider assumptions- political, economic, commercial. These assumptions became totally self perpetuating, as many people seemed to have virtually no contact with people outside this culture. They shopped at ‘Christian’ shops, employed ‘Christian’ tradesman, listened only to ‘Christian’ voices (and only ones from a particular part of the spectrum) and voted always for ‘Christian’ politicians. God, community and country were indistinguishable.

I particularly remember a store with a whole isle selling nothing but Aslans, in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Next to another selling Bible cases decorated with the American flag.

Those who did not conform to a particular way of being were gently corrected, or would find themselves ‘outside’.

The best way of describing this culture I have heard is this one- Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. God exists as a kind of divine therapist, mediating the psychological and financial rewards of society upon those who can conform to a certain moral code. God is a personal saviour, who will guarantee self esteem and success. Those who lack these things need to repent, and get more God so that they get some kind of a chance in the next life if not in this one.

All this has real strengths but it is hard to fully reconcile it all with the story of Jesus. Jesus called us to go, not stay. He seemed intent on overturning tables erected by the religious folk. He gravitated towards the outsiders, the poor, the broken. He started no political parties, nor would be joined to any. And he certainly gave no guarantees for health and wealth.

If I sound critical of the American church, then this is only because these issues were so much more obvious to me as an outsider. We can make equally critical comments about our own religious institutions. Think back towards the days of Empire and the complicity of our own churches even with genocide.

But how is this perspective reflected in our songs of worship?

When you stand back and look at the canon of songs that we have inherited over the last thirty years written both sides of the Atlantic they have some common characteristics;

  • They focus primarily on individual encounters with a personal God. Often it is as if worship is the means by which God ministers to us in some kind of Holy Spirit therapy.
  • They assume that repentance is required to allow us to be acceptable to God, and therefore to receive his blessing. However, repentance is primarily concerned with individual morality- particularly sexuality or dishonesty. We hear next to nothing about injustice, consumerism, over consumption or the workings of international capitalism.
  • There is little call to collective action, apart from parallel individual actions in line with the point above. There is little idea that repentance can be collective, or that change requires sacrifice and joint action.
  • Then there is the theological assumptions of the unassailable centrality of penal substitutionary atonement. The only way to save the world is one soul at a time- and our interest is really only in saving them from hell in the next life.

Does this sound familiar? I am of course not saying that the views above are necessarily wrong, rather that they arise from culture. They are then reinforced and communicated within our songs.  Where then are the songs of protest, of prophetic vision, of renewed or alternative perspectives? The songs of the marginalised now welcomed home, the songs that disturb and challenge? The songs that confront power in the name of the weak? Where are the songs that remember the God who liberates captives not just in the abstract, who breaks actual chains? Where are the songs for the wayside pilgrim campfire, not those that require a graphic equaliser and power amplifier?

As ever, Brian McLaren has some interesting things to say on this issue. If not songs about personal relationships with Jesus, then what? He suggested some of the following in this article which is well worth reading in full;

  1. Biblical vision of God’s future which is pulling us toward itself
  2. Not just evangelism, but mission – participating in the mission of God, the kingdom of God, which is so much bigger and grander than our little schemes of organizational self-aggrandizement) is the key element needed as we move into the postmodern world.
  3.  Re-discover historic Christian spirituality and express it in our lyrics.
  4. Songs that are simply about God … songs giving God the spotlight, so to speak, for God as God, God’s character, God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s wonder and mystery, not just for the great job God is doing at making me feel good.
  5. Songs of lament. The Bible is full of songs that wail, the blues but even bluer, songs that feel the agonizing distance between what we hope for and what we have, what we could be and what we are, what we believe and what we see and feel. The honesty is disturbing, and the songs of lament don’t always end with a happy Hallmark-Card-Precious-Moments cliché to try to fix the pain. ( Amen Brian!)

By way of another example;

Who remembers the song ‘Heart of Worship’? I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you. If I remember rightly, this came about as a result of a song writer/worship leader coming to the realisation that the music had taken over, so they stopped singing for a while to reflect and rebalance.

Then wrote a song about it.

It is not just the irony of this that should raise an eyebrow, it is the fact that the only cultural response to such a challenge to worship culture is to do the same thing again with a bit more passion.

Perhaps it might be time to do something totally different.

One of the things about the most recent renewal movement to sweep through the church, which I will describe using the words ’emerging/missional consciousness’ has been the LACK of songs, and the lack of singing.

I think this is partly reaction formation against the things mentioned above, but also because other forms of worship have been in the ascendancy. I have taken a similar journey with my own community, Aoradh. We became much more interested in ‘Alternative worship’, borrowing more from the art gallery than the auditorium. Worship became more about encounter within a shared space, with the emphasis being about openness and creativity.

All movement however need a corrective because the pendulum will swing too far and will overbalance the clock.

And all movements also need to communicate their hopes, dreams, ideas and worship. Within the emerging church this has tended to happen over the internet- blogs, podcasts, you tube clips, twitter feeds, even the old archaic websites.

But we still need to sing. We are not just individuals with access to chatrooms, we are also flesh and vocal chord.

Sing me a song of freedom and a song of hope, and I will sing it with you.

Networking weekend- emerging/missional/alt.worship etc…

We are heading down to Telford to the Tautoko gathering in a few weeks. This is a chance to spend a weekend sharing ideas and hopes and prayers with other people who have found themselves doing similar things in and around the edges of established church.

There are some places left on the weekend- Check out Jonny’s description– (He has a thing against capital letters I reckon?!)

for a few years there has been a network of leaders/communities that initially got together off the back of al hirsch and michael frost’s visit back in 2005 and following on from various blah… events round the country. it grew out of alt worship and emerging church friendships. every so often there is a gathering of the network and there is one coming up in june. it’s a pretty low key affair – mainly hanging out and conversation with some space for talking around issues and some prayer and worship. we usually stay in a youth hostel to keep it cheap.

the next gathering is in june – info is here. if you think you fit with the description around the network below you’d be welcome to join us – just book in or e-mail me if you want to know more. there are spaces left on the weekend that we’d love to see filled…

The tautoko network was originally formed out of friends connected with alternative worship, emerging church, or missional communities. Why? Well mainly because we love hanging out together. The network was made a bit more intentional/formal recognising that there were plenty of others involved in the same kind of stuff who didn’t necessarily have the history of friendships but could gain a ton from being part of it. These were the words we put together to describe why it exists and they still seem a pretty fair reflection…

  • To share the journey with others who face similar mission challenges.
  • For mutual friendship, encouragement, solidarity, support, gift giving, discernment, resource sharing, ideas and learning
  • To see what emerges as creative people connect.

And the ethos/values we try and shape the friendships around are…

Open set | Spin free | Generous | Vulnerable | Questioning