Monday, 8 October 2012

The New Church-going

What counts as regular churchgoing? In my childhood it meant twice on Sundays and attendance at the mid-week prayer meeting. If you got down to just once on Sundays, people viewed you differently but it was OK. If you weren’t there at all, for no particular reason, they were concerned; some even prayed for you. Then came along the changing cultures of the 20th century, and liturgical reform. The large churches created extra services each Sunday, each with a different style. But in the countryside, to keep everyone happy (and coming), we got into different services each Sunday of a month. Said BCP Mattins one week, CW eucharist with hymns the next, BCP holy communion the third, ‘family service’ the fourth (even if no children come…). Generally these services were also at different times, so the clergy could circulate around several villages to do the ‘honours’ at the holy table. And without particularly meaning to, we ourselves redefined regular churchgoing. It now means coming once a month rather than once a week. More often is good, but once a month is OK. In this diocese we even officially count our ‘participant’ numbers (for the purposes of Common Fund) as monthly attenders.

Like many places, churches in Devon are experimenting with Messy Church. For many, it’s a massive step forward in terms of adapting to the emerging culture around us today, especially younger adults with kids. It’s a lot of work, but if people throw themselves into it, it seems to work. Perhaps this is the new face of regular church attendance. Informal. With craft work. And food. For kids, but with parents involved. Low-key Christian message. Fun. And (like the ‘family services’ they often replace) monthly. Actually, no-one can maintain Messy Church type events on a weekly basis. But there is no pressure to either.

And there’s the really big difference between the new churchgoing and traditional churchgoing. It’s not so much in what you do, or what you sing and don’t sing, or where you meet or when – big enough though those differences are. It’s the frequency. People in the countryside want traditional church for Christmas, Easter, Remembrance, Harvest, baptisms, weddings, funerals – and they don’t want or need it modernised or changed much to turn up. And some are OK about whatever-suits-you monthly attendance. But the key missional question is: how do we begin to form any substantial Christian community or commitment amongst (say) younger adults, on a diet of 3-4 major festivals a year, occasional rites of passage, and monthly fun events?

I have been working on creating a range of other things people could start coming to, also on a monthly basis. Monthly mid-week evenings on the ‘virtues’ that lie in the heart of God, with a little contemporary worship, an inspiring talk (with visuals), and some time for prayer, even prayer ministry. And monthly mid-week evenings on how Christian faith is relevant to the issues people talk about in the pub on Friday evenings when putting the world to rights, held café style with plenty of opportunity for discussion and questions – even held in a commercial café setting. Maybe people will find their ‘level’ within several layers of monthly events they can gradually grow into. Maybe it will work (very slow going so far…).

But maybe it’s not about attendance – at least, not at present. We may mourn the loss of ‘weekly public worship’ and the discipleship opportunities it provided. But perhaps the greater loss was less obvious, more hidden. Perhaps attendance loss was merely the reflection of another loss – faith practice in the home. Actually as a child I don’t remember much of it – grace before meals was about it. But previous generations had read the bible around the meal table, said prayers with children before bed, and other things besides. The father was the spiritual head of the household – just as Jewish fathers have always been. Perhaps this is where we need to start again?

So I am starting with a display of children’s bibles and DVDs, so monthly-attendance parents can see some of the amazing resources we have today to read and watch with their children, to give them the story of the Bible in their own homes. I want to add books of child-friendly prayers, as the next step. Maybe genuine discipleship can be developed rather well by a pattern of religious festivals, rites of passage, monthly events that suit you, and faith practice in the home. It’s more of an OT pattern, before the advent of synagogues; so it has provenance...

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this stimulating thought. We seek to make disciples rather than attenders, and I am sure that you are right about the key place of family in the 'OT' model,but until we see whole families (or at least heads of families) turn to Christ with confidence to lead their families on, the key must surely be the small group that meets regularly - weekly. I've just been reading "Community- how to get your small groups off life support" by Brad House - looking beyond bible study to community involvement and mission.