Before Christmas we held a Light Up a Life event at the Hospice where I work. Over 800 people turned up on a chilly evening and stood or sat under the trees in the grounds. What did we do? We sang, we listened to music, we heard stories, we lit up a Christmas tree, we fell silent and remembered, and we crammed ourselves into a marquee for food and drink. Some hugged and exclaimed as they met staff or other families they knew, some sat quietly and pensively, wanting to stay with their own thoughts, some slipped away unobtrusively into the gathering darkness. A lot of thought and organisation had gone into the event by many of the staff, volunteers and patients. The chief exec and the chaplain briefly introduced items and people, made a few announcements and ensured that everyone knew what was happening but there was no very obvious sense that someone was 'up front in charge'. Clearly there was something spiritual going on in many people's hearts and minds. There were considerably more people at the event than there had been the previous week at the hospice's Light Up A Life carol service in the cathedral.
Linda Woodhead writes, this week, in a Church Times article Time to get Serious , about the evidence for the decline of the Anglican church in the UK. John Binns, in A Language Designed for Insiders , then makes some interesting comments about the powerful potential of the very worship that includes the already-committed to exclude almost everybody else - and you can see this illustrated in David Walker's apt cartoons. Linda makes the point that trends in decline do not necessarily continue to the point of annihilation. Indeed, I remember that when I was at theological college in the 1980's we worked out that, on then-current trends, the Church of England would cease to exist in 2009. Well, of course, it hasn't. But the situation is pretty serious.
When we think about church growth we seem, I think, almost always to be asking the wrong set of questions. Much of what I read about 'church growth' in fact explores the reasons for church decline. Commentator after commentator asks, 'What are the reasons people are not coming to church?' This leads to huge amounts of hand-wringing, guilt and fear, perhaps especially among clergy who work in situations where there is serious decline. It also leads to too much concentration on 'being welcoming' without any research to show what in fact people find 'welcoming'.
Instead, why don't we ask, 'Why would people come to church?' Organisations that have energy and the power of attraction are usually focused on what they do believe and what they do offer, not on the stumbling blocks to engagement. They are communities of hospitality gathered around shared values and purposes. I asked some of our Light Up a Life attendees why they might think of joining in a worship activity. The answers went like this.
To take a bit of space out of my hectic schedule.
To participate in something that takes you beyond yourself.
To be able to share your concerns with people who will understand.
To be challenged about the things I know I avoid or get lazy about.
To learn about Christianity - to ask some of the really deep questions I have.
To be with people who are searching for God or love or something.
For a bit of peace.
To be close to our loved ones.
I think it's helpful to hear stories that make you think.
To find some strength to carry on.
As a resource for inner light and peace.
To help me find ways of explaining things to my children.
If I felt the other people wanted to get to know me I might go.
I'd hope to discover the wisdom I need to tackle things that are going on in my life.
I'd like to know more about how you can pray and what happens when you do.
I'd like to be able to go just for a bit - if you could come and go like we did here.
I need to see forgiveness - I need it for myself but I need to see it in other people's attitudes too.
If that's what some regular non-worshippers would come to church for, what shape would worship need to take, how would it look and what attitudes and behaviours would need to be in evidence? What language would be accessible?
I have recently discovered the blog Church in A Circle. Written by Kathleen Ward, it explores new ways of being church and, in particular, of worshipping. It's grounded in the experiences of an actual worshipping community founded by Kathleen and Kevin-Neil Ward. In regular short posts, Kathleen describes ways of worshipping that are certainly more in tune with the some of the things my little research group told me. The subtitle of her blog gives an idea of where she is coming from - 'From monologue to dialogue. From audience to participation. From performance to empowerment.' You can read it here
The clear message is, I believe, that churches must focus on positive questions like 'What are people looking for?' 'Why would they come?' and 'What will they find that is good here?' 'What will they understand?' 'What is meaningful?' As we discover answers (which we will), we must do, and do more of those things. And as Church in A Circle finds, this will involve a radical revisiting of power structures, learning styles and physical environment in order to help people reconnect with the treasures of gospel and tradition. This is non-denomnational work but it will have to have profound consequences for the organisational and governmental structures of the churches - and the question for the Anglican churches is, can we respond to this and can we do it quickly enough and in sufficient depth?