The future Church
We often ask ourselves: ‘Does the church have a future?’ The trouble with that question is that it is rooted in the baggage of the existing institution and hence it is a philosophically conservative question. Perhaps the liberal paradigm might cause us to ask a far more exciting one: ‘Does the future have a church?’
In the first article in this series, I looked at numerical decline in the Church of England, made a pragmatic case for liberals to engage with the ‘growth agenda’ and explored some of the theological strengths which liberalism might bring to the party. In the second article I sketched out some ways of working which the research shows are likely to be fruitful. In this final article I will look at what commentators and researchers are saying about the future of the church and hence suggesting some potentially fruitful avenues for liberal Christians to explore.
The retrenchment of the State
Grace Davie identifies the retrenchment of the State as a significant factor in renewing the relevance of churches. In many communities, churches are stepping in to fill gaps vacated by the State as it shrinks. No town or city is now without its foodbank - a phenomenon unthinkable even twenty years ago.
Liberal Christians have always placed a strong emphasis on social action and social transformation. The shrinking State provides an opportunity to ‘do justice and love mercy’ and to experience ‘life before death’ in the company of people whom the State and wider society often leave behind.
Being able to work with a non-judgemental paradigm is the greatest of strengths when dealing with the most vulnerable members of society. Hopefully this is exactly the mindset that liberal Christians will bring to such work.
The Age of Mystics
At a recent joint meeting of Modern Church and the Progressive Christianity Network (PCN) in Birmingham, Diana Butler-Bass began her presentation with the kind of gloomy statistical news about Church decline that I discussed in the first article. She offered, however two graphs with very clear upward trends.
The first of these was what she called ‘The rise of the nones’ - i.e. there is an increase in the number of those reporting that they have no religious affiliation at all. No surprise there, perhaps. However, the second rising graph was far more interesting. While attendance numbers at worship are falling and while, across the whole population the age profile of congregations continues to increase, the most hopeful and interesting graph offered showed a clear upward trend in people’s reports of ‘religious experience’.
Butler Bass’s contention is that ‘the rise of the nones’ is only half the story of religion in society today - both in the US and the UK she sees the present day as an ‘Age of Mystics’. Linda Woodhead has also written of this based on her extensive research in the UK.
This openness to the divine, of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ is fertile territory for liberal Christians to explore. Just as Vincent Donovan wrote of the traditional ancestral faith of the Maasai as being their ‘old testament’, it may be that liberals can, like Paul at the Areopagus, make ready connections between the mystical and divine experiences which almost half of the population claim to have had, and the Divine as known in the Christian tradition.
Several liberal churches are at the moment experimenting very successfully with ‘Christian Mindfulness’. The heart of such sessions is non-dogmatic and presents no ‘belief barrier’ to those who participate, and yet these are moments when the heart can be opened to the unmediated, transforming reality of God. Perhaps this is a pointer toward the kind of bold experiment in spiritual practise we should be trying out if we are going to work fruitfully with the women and men who populate the Age of Mystics?
Linda Woodhead and others have identified the relative unlikelihood that ‘nones’ will begin to attend church in large numbers. It is overwhelmingly unlikely that people in the pews today will not have been in some way ‘brought up Christian’ and, conversely, those ‘brought up none’ are 95% likely to remain that way.
An exception to this rule seems to be found in ‘Fresh Expressions of Church’ – new church communities created around an activity or sociologically defined group who create church around the language, needs and gifts of that particular group. In the Church Army’s research on Fresh Expressions it seems that up to 40% on average of those attending Fresh Expressions may be ‘non-churched’ – i.e. people with little or no previous experience of or exposure to the Christian tradition.
Liberals should excel at creating and sustaining Fresh Expressions – particularly the liberal emphases on creativity, flexibility and inclusivity will be valuable in helping liberals to create Fresh Expressions which are genuinely innovative in theology and ethos.
The listening Church
Success in engaging with those abandoned by the State, with the Age of Mystics, and in creating innovative Fresh Expressions depends above all on the liberal ability to listen and respond flexibly. In Liberal Evangelism, John Saxbee argues that both listening and a flexibility of response to what is heard are key components of the process of evangelistic engagement.
More recently, the philosopher Gemma Fiumara, in The Other Side of Language, argues that the concept of Logos as purely propositional should be supplemented by the concept of Logos as listening – that the tradition simply transmitted does not communicate or connect, and that speakers of the Word need to be in creative dialogue with those with whom they seek to communicate, and open to being changed by the encounter themselves as much as they create change in others.
Among my guilty pleasures, the one I’m most ashamed of is a slight addiction to books and websites about management and leadership. The book that got me hooked fifteen years ago was Reimagine by Tom Peters. Several of Peters’ ideas have stayed with me since I first read the book but if I were to choose just one, it would be the notion of ‘Skunkwork’.
The idea of ‘Skunkwork’ is that in any corporation there exist ‘corporate skunks’. These are individuals or small groups who are radically disaffected by the existing way of doing things in the organisation.
Peters uses the term skunk because, as far as the corporation is concerned, they make a right stink, lots of noise in the undergrowth and occasionally tip the bins over. Peters’ contention is that, far from being anarchists, corporate skunks are individuals who are so in tune with the deep needs, true soul and authentic mission of the organisation that they are content to stand out against the crowd and the prevailing ethos.
Tom Peters goes on to challenge his readership to embrace their corporate skunks, to resource them and let them have a go at putting what seem to be ‘off the wall’ ideas into action. He cites the example of a US defence contractor which turned a part of its R&D budget over to individuals or small teams who were set free of the usual constraints of layers of committee scrutiny and long range planning. Some projects flopped but many were so differently brilliant they went on to earn the corporation millions.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has a name for its corporate skunks – we call them ‘prophets’. Individuals who are deeply out of time with the rhythm of the prevailing religio-political consensus… because they are so deeply synchronised to the heartbeat of the universe, to God. When their biographies are considered, it would be difficult to think of a more apt description for the likes of Amos or Hosea.
Being liberal in the Church of England can sometime feel like being a corporate skunk. Unfashionable, off-message, making a stink out there in the undergrowth…slightly dubious and certainly irrelevant. But perhaps it is time for a few skunks to get to work within the corporation and to take some bold and creative risks in mission?
A Poem: Dare by Jeff Foster
with thanks to Jackie O’Carroll
Dare to allow yourself to be seen.
Dare to tell the truth.
Dare to stop pretending.
Dare to stay present to the secret fire that burns inside.
Dare to be wildly inconsistent.
Dare to let another in.
Dare to let go of the image.
Dare to never be prepared.
Dare to give everything
for the awakening of love
Dare to fail.
Dare to mess everything up.
Dare to fall to the ground,
humbled again, laughing.
Dare to dream and let dreams die.
Dare to honour the past but not cling to it.
Dare to give an honest Yes and an honest No.
Dare to be wrong.
Dare to be right.
Dare to be real.
Dare to be here.