The number of people attending the Church is seemingly falling. The Church of England report stated that “church attendance will continue to fall for the next 30 years.” Not exactly good bedtime reading but it might focus prayers. The Methodist Church, renowned for its statistical analysis, published its latest overview which quietly mentioned that:
British Methodism has long faced numerical and demographic challenge. The majority of current members are retirement age.
That last sentence is particularly worrying.
Churches have been hard at work trying to bring people back into the church buildings for years. Holy Trinity Brompton’s Alpha course, starting back in 1977, invites people to partake (literally) for 10 weeks as they discuss elements of faith whilst eating mouth-watering meals. It has been a very successful aspect of evangelism and brought many into the Church. I wonder though whether it has had its day. Yes, it still meets a particular need and it has tried to change dynamically throughout its life but are we focussing upon getting people into church and missing the point?
In 1993, with the advent of Street Pastors, we saw a movement towards reaching out to those in the night-time economy. Moreover they engaged with those in the margins of life. These volunteers went out on a Friday and/or Saturday night between 9pm and 3-4am to just be there for people out on the town. Those people may be out celebrating and the Pastors would join in the fun and banter; the Pastors may also meet up with those who are commiserating, struggling with life issues. Occasionally they would just chat with the revellers, listening to what is viewed as important to people outside of Church. Often they would help directly with those who: need water to rehydrate; a space blanket (not to keep warm) to deflect the vomit from the dress, trousers or shoes; or a pair of flip-flops to help them get home without standing on broken shards of glass or, sadly due to the lack of toilets, faeces. Most it was a listening ear, who would be there for them when they needed someone.
The Street Pastors extended their work through School Pastors so they could support children to and from school. They developed this form of outreach into working in neighbourhoods where family breakdown was causing particular issues. The important aspect here was that it was not direct evangelism but this was walking alongside people. It wasn’t “give them a Bible” but “let’s answer only the question they have.” The Bible is important but to those who may be outside of the Church today it may have little relevance.
Christian Nightlife Initiative brought us Street Angels who, like the Street Pastors, go out and walk alongside people who, out nightclubbing, may need some support. They also have started Club Angels, a remarkable outreach, where they stay in the nightclub itself and support people. Nothing like listening to someone whilst in the gents toilets…but perhaps that’s where they can talk without their ‘friends’ seeing that they are worried?
If our aim is to get people back into Church we might need to consider why these people can be called ‘dechurched’ if they went to church in the first place, or ‘unchurched’ if they had never set foot in a church. If we invite them back to something which resembles the very place they went to years ago or is that stereotypical place they had always imagined, they’ll turn around and leave. It isn’t about bringing them back to church but reintroducing them into a relationship.
I have always felt that the most important aspect of Christianity is that relationship with Jesus. Every Easter we acclaim that Jesus is Alive! and He lives in Us. This loving relationship must be real and tangible to all who wish to know. The 5 hymns and long sermon from Leviticus may not provide that sense of loving relationship for those who are dechurched or unchurched. So if people felt a desire to (re-) engage with Jesus whilst out on the streets or in the night club I wonder whether by trying to bring them back to Church we are missing the underlying message?
What is Church then? For many it may be the building but for others it is the people. You can if you wish have a relationship with a building….but in todays possibly fractured society people may be yearning for that relationship which is dependable and provides meaning to their life.
For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.
I wonder whether rather than churches we can consider nightclubs, bars, cafe’s (as shown above), restaurants, coffee shops, children’s play areas, parks..you get the message…as a Church venue.
The rise in the number of food banks is an awful sign of our economic society but in those times of great anguish and despair, people can find relationships growing and forming – there is Church.
Those sessions where Mums and Toddlers are invited for tea and toast just as the parents are walking back from school allows relationships to form – there is Church.
People enter into a relationship and find the love of God shown sincerely to all they meet. People can talk about their faith in neutral surroundings. Our hymns will become the rhythmical background hum of myriads of people chatting about life and faith. Our prayers are dedicated and individual to those whom we are sharing our lives with.
I am not saying that we do away with the traditional buildings but that we focus our attention away from bringing people back to these often cold buildings. People need relationships which offer warmth and understanding.
My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality.
1 John 3:18 (Message Bible)
What do you think?