Friday, 13 March 2009

How We Do Church

I was interested in Cherie Blair's comment, in Channel Four's 'Christianity: A History' documentary series, that maybe the church - which church she did not specify but it could be presumed the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church since they are the two mainstream church organisations in UK - should change the way it 'did church'. Suggesting that its not a decline in belief that's the problem, but that people can no longer relate to the traditional way of 'doing church'.

As a Christian I agree. As a ex-church goer I agree. But I think the problem is also about what people actually think the church stands for or what it believes in. If, as the last census suggests, that some 70% of the population say they are Christian, you have to ask what do they mean by that? For instance when filling in forms that ask you to define your religious status I used to say I was Church of England. Yet I did not go to a Church of England Church. I did not agree with the roles and norms related to the Church of England. Too much tradition and not enough belief related action. And the Church of England like the Roman Catholic Church waits for you to come to them, or at least they did. Which even for and agnostic atheist like me, as I was then at the time of census, seemed most un-Jesus like. You see, I could not relate to the word church. I suggest there are many people out there who do not relate to church. They see it as them, the church, and us, the people. And that is one of the reasons, I think, that people are failing to go to church. They do not relate to the way it 'does church'. If there is 70% plus of people who say they are Christian they certainly do not relate their Christianity to the churches Christianity. They are not relating to what the church stands for.

Cherie Blair contrasted the USA with the UK, looking the rise of the so called 'mega churches'. Could this rise be because of the way the churches 'do church'? In her opening statement Cherie Blair decried the fact that Christians were being marginalised, because the churches were declining in numbers, because they did not have the impact on, or relevance to, society as before. Christianity in the states however has far more input into political debates and social and educational agendas than the UK.

Willow Creek was one of the churches that Cherie Blair visited. It is a mega church in that it has a lot of people attend, in the thousands, it is a progressive church in that it has a shopping mall type premise and a upbeat pastoral team. It caters for society as it is today. It says it is inclusive in its outreach. As say the churches in the UK, especially the Evangelical churches, who are trying to offer something different from the Anglican and Roman Catholic Church in terms of 'doing church'.

There was the Methodist church in Chicago where a Christian lesbian, who was active within the church teaching field, expressed her feeling of inclusion and acceptance into the church. Something she had not found in other churches. I picked up on the meaning of her statement. She was not only accepted into this 'inclusive' church but 'included' in the church. Being enabled to use her talents, skills or 'gifts' if you like for the benefit of the church. To be included, and not just accepted, now that was interesting. And I think that is one more reason why people do not go to church, or why traditional churches in Europe and the UK, are failing to get people into services. People are not included. Accepted possibly, included no.

There is perhaps another reason for the decline in church attendance in the UK, and this relates to something I have noticed in my observations of the mega church gatherings in the USA, and the evangelical church gatherings in the UK, and that is that 'like attracted like'. Maybe that has always been that way. You either 'fit in' with the group, or you do not. But that leaves the question to be asked, is it the message of that church that calls the people to that particular church or is it that they see a bunch of look a likes, no differences per say, and it feels good, it feels nice, it is also exclusive in its manner. Whether it means to be or not. Even an inclusive church like Willow Creek seemed full of lookalikes. No I'm not being unfair. There were a number of people from a different socio-demographic sphere. Perhaps I was not looking hard enough or perhaps there was not enough time to show the full array of people who worship there.

However, like for like is normal. We all gyrate to groups or organisations that we feel comfortable with, that agree with out point of view or say the things we want to hear. We gyrate to groups or organisations, and this includes places of worship, because our spouses, family or friends feel comfortable with it, and we either like joining in, or we do because, well, because they do. Maybe that is another way the church should go, all like minded people, or rather those in the same socio-demographic group 'doing church' together. It would be like the night clubs for the younger generation and the tea parties for the older generation with the Christian message being provided to suit the group.

I'm not sure the creation of different socio-demographic churches is either realistic or desirable. The human race consists of the young and the old, the families and the single people, the haves and the have not's, the moderns and the traditionalists. I agree with Cherie Blair's suggestion that the church should modernise and change the way it 'does church'. However, though it may help if the church changed it's way of 'doing church', the main reason is, I believe, as to why the church in the UK is declining is that the message the church gives is either watered down to suit a set audience, or so harsh and uncompromising, that it is unrealistic in its application, disregarding any ethical considerations and imposing an intolerable burden of dogmatic and literalistic observances or way of behaving and thinking upon people. People do not, can not, relate to it.

Unless the church stops living in the tradition of man made, or man centered church, and looks towards, maybe it would be more correct to say looks back-towards, a Jesus centered church, it will always be out there, being seen as exclusive and, sadly, irrelevant. It's not just how you 'do church' it is about being a church - a church of people who are like minded in the sole fact that they want to know Jesus, and not in the fact that they are all young or old or all into hip-hop music or the fashion of the day, but who want to know Jesus, who want to worship God and through worshipping God come to be socially as well as spiritually interacted and interactive. To see that Jesus and thus the Gospel is not only relevant but realistic and applicable to their lives. Not the ideology of what should be, but the ideology of what is and how does the church, through the message of Christ, relate to the real world existing of real and diverse peoples. For Christ was never exclusive and never irrelevant, he was interactive and interacted with people. If the church, or churches, endeavoured to do that first, it might well cease to be seen as indifferent and irrelevant and marginal to society.

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