The day started normally with a visit to the High Street before meeting a lovely couple who I will be marrying sometime in June. As I left that home I heard a report on the adio saying church congregations were on the decline and that it was becoming less popular to be married in church or have baptisms. I laughed and thought to myself … not here. In St Mary Magdalene, one of the churches I am associated with, we have loads of weddings and baptisms and I try to support the priest who is there.
Later in the day I received a call asking if I would be interviewed regarding the nes story because another church I am associated with, St Mark’s, bucks the national trend with Sunday attendance. I hoped someone else would be available but in less than an hour, after a bit of prayer, there I was in front of a camera for the BBC South East news.
They asked me why I thought the congregation at St Mark’s was growing and implied beforehand that they thought it was due to wacky lively services which were more attractive to people. But I seemed to surprise them when I shared that personally I thought that the Gillingham churches had over the last decade really got involved in the local community and listened. From this listening they have worked together to provide stuff that is both helpful and needed: youth clubs, Foodbank, CAP advice, Alpha groups, CAB drop ins, Midwife drop ins, holiday clubs, community events, an oversubscribed children’s club, support for international students, and so on and so on.
I tried to say that as the churches of Gillingham had shown that their faith in God was a practical faith that cared because God cared and got involved to make a positive difference then people became interested. When people saw a lifestyle that matched the message they were attracted. When authenticity of word and action were obvious people became intrigued. This stuff goes right back to Love Gillingham days, and even before when GYFC was set up. I tried to say all that, but I’m not sure how well I did but I’m told the message was clear and succinct!
I’ve probably said before, but this common notion that if we just change this or change that about a Sunday service then people will come is no longer a complete answer. It may have been in the past when people were more naturally connected to church. But we now live in an age where more than one generation of people have never been to church in their life …. and so it brings into question the whole Back to Church Sunday thing. It needs to be a try church campaign …. or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe Back to Church Sunday needs to become ‘Let’s get Out of Church Sunday’?
I think the lifespan of a purely attractional model of church has its days numbered. They will exist, but unless they are rooted in their areas, expressing the truth of God’s LOVE (not the lie of condemnation), and being a transformational presence in their communities …. then I am not sure how healthy they will be.
I do firmly believe in a mixed economy of church. We certainly don’t wish to retract to becoming just one kind of church with one kind of church with one language and one idea. I think that is important. Mixed economy talks of relevance and engagement. Traditional church is not out of touch if it is engaging and enabling its congregation. Fresh expressions of church can be out of touch if they become inward looking worship services.
I am convinced, however, that we are living in a time of heightened spirituality. People want to experience God and they want to know that faith in God works.They need to be convinced of the faith working bit before exploring it further. That is a massive challenge to all Christians because the time has now passed for many when they will naturally think of visiting a church to meet that spiritual need, or to meet the God that created them and passionately loves them. Church is no longer on the agenda of, and nor does it feature in, the minds of the majority.
If they won’t come … then we have no option but to go! That makes sense to me … to go and not preach the ‘message’ …. but to go and be the message. So … lets GO! I’m getting old and my memory is failing but, …. didn’t someone else say that about 2000 years ago ….