Let me explain…
The last couple of years I haven’t been able to get away from Back to Church Sunday. It seemed that many in the UK had an idea that the most effective thing we could do to help people engage with Christian faith was to invite them ‘back’ to church and there was much reporting of success rates and numbers.
It was a strategy that caused me much angst and my frustration focussed on several areas:
1. Most people in the UK now have never been to church so how can we invite them back to something they have never experienced?
2. The Baby-Boomers who Roger Standing in Re-emerging Church suggests are the last remaining age group who were brought up going to church and often hold precious memories which they can reconnect with, are as important as any other section of society, but equally remain only one proportion of our population. The hopes pinned on Back to Church Sunday as a national strategy seemed a little disproportionate to me, especially given point No1.
3. I have issues with the phrase ‘back to church’ and in an age when many in the post-Christendom West are exploring emerging/missional church ideas and unpacking what it means to ‘be’ church I always struggle to invite people ‘to’ church…however I do honestly appreciate that inviting someone ‘to’ church can be the start of that journey (that is my story anyway…see below!).
I was pondering earlier this week how Back To Church Sunday however is likely to be a good strategy for the States because it seems to me that when Americans talk about unchurched people they usually mean people who no longer come to church and with 40% (anecdotally) of Americans still going to church the ‘fringe’ of people who have probably attended at some point in their life must be vast. In the UK although it is sometimes reported that 80-90% of people still call themselves culturally ‘Christian’, (ie they tick the CofE box when admitted to hospital), church attendance has dropped to a maximum of 6% and it is suspected that quite a few of those 6% have been counted twice! Therefore when we ask church members to invite someone ‘back’ to church I wonder who exactly we expect them to invite!
As I was pondering this I came across Cathleen Falsani’s recent post on the Sojourners blog which pointed towards a rather excellent video (below) which, guessing by the accents, was made by the Back to Church guys in the States. I share her joy at finding a video clip which is really quite inspiring and moving. It is honest, affectionate, warm and welcoming…if a little cheesy, but hey, it wouldn’t be Christian without a bit of cheese! And I would have quite liked to have seen a camp guy as well as the body-builders…because the church is for ‘girly men’ too…isn’t it? Yet it paints a pretty accurate picture of many church communities here in the UK whose welcome, support and depth of community and care we can celebrate.
But that brings me to a further point in my angst:
4. Never mind inviting people BACK to church, why aren’t we inviting people TO church anyway?
1. Lack of confidence in the church
If you are part of a church that you and others do not feel confident inviting people to become part of, then there is a serious break down in possibilities. I know some do feel confident in doing this and I have seen many who are new in their faith inspire their unchurched friends to try out church – often they have been surprised, moved and have had a life-changing encounter with God. However if you cannot see this as a possible outcome there is some serious thinking to be done.
2. Over churched
Church culture in the West has become pretty all-consuming. Once you become a believer your maturity of faith is often measured by your attendance on Sundays, at mid-week meetings and your volunteering for other programmes. Woe-betide you if you miss a meeting to go to a party or the pub or the football! Some of us are seriously too busy to have friends outside the church let alone get to the depth of friendship where you can talk about faith and life issues together.
3. Churchless faith
A third reason we are not inviting people to church is that church as it is now is not, and never may be, the place that those beyond the fringe of the church will ever encounter God. The gap is simply too huge to cross, the culture too alien, the methods and formats too bizarre. This is where the UK is vastly different from the States and this is why I think Back to Church Sunday is a great idea for friends over the pond, but pretty futile here. Most people in the States I suspect still know how to behave in church and what is expected of them. Increasingly people in the UK do not.
And this is why creating new forms of being church is so vital. And this is why looking out for what God is doing on the margins amongst the people he loves and can meet without the help of the established church anyway, and joining in, is crucial too. So often we behave like the church is the most important thing – ultimately the church is there to serve the purpose of pointing people towards the God who loves them and wants to know them more. I’m getting pretty tired of talking about getting people back to church…I’d much rather we start talking about helping people get in touch with Jesus…and then just see what happens…chances are it will look a bit like church!