A number of academic and popular writers are talking about a shift in culture that has led to a ‘quest spiritulaity’ or ‘seeker spirituality’ (Wader Clark Roof, Robert Wuthnow). To put it bluntly we’ll only engage in church, religious communities and parachurch activities if it will contribute something to our own spiritual quest. Now on one level this can only be admirable, no? Many a decade of preachers would have lamented ‘pew-fodder’, ‘nominal religion’ and ‘dead traditionalists’ who attended out of habit, respectability or bloody minded inertia.
I once pioneered a new church community into a building share with an existing, but sadly depleted congregation. It had been bled dry by the physical barrier of a 4 lane ring-road being built right next to it’s boundary walls, separating it from its natural parish and area of influence.
Part of it’s told history was the extraordinary events surrounding its near closure a few decades before. The Diocesan Bishop had stood up in the pulpit one Sunday and announced that it would be closed. But, miraculously it seemed, a legacy came in within days of this announcement and the building was repaired and saved. What was even more extraordinary though was the trench mentality that this produced in the (still depleting) congregation. That Bishop came and went, as did several of his successors, but an animosity continued towards the office of the Diocesan Bishop of Lichfield, such that at an important church anniversary, the church leadership were pleased not to have the current Bishop in attendance. Several members of that congregation verbalised their purpose in maintaining the building in the phrase: ‘As long as it’s ok for my funeral’.
But whatever the pastoral rights and wrongs, and circumstance that had conspired to leave (at least some of) the aged congregation with this regrettable mindset, they were, almost to a person, contributors rather than consumers of the church that they had left. They were tireless in their endeavours to balance books, clean, tidy, maintain and indeed worship in their Georgian 700 seater.
My experience of leading age specific congregations – for 18-35 year olds (by intention) and for 60+ year olds (as determined by worship style and timings) bears a moment or two of comparison. At the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) or mid-week communion services the roll call was easy. You expected ‘Mrs Simmonds’ to be in the 2nd seat from the back without fail, unless she had previously told you of a grandson’s visit or holiday that she was going on. If she didn’t turn up you simply phoned and visited if appropriate, and what is more, even if you hadn’t noticed, the congregants around her would be seemingly telepathically aware of her absence and even whereabouts despite the fact that they shuffled in quietly and seemed at a glance to have only the most cordial of relationships.
At the young adults service a member of our team was deployed on social media round up to remind as many members as possible (by SMS, Facebook, Twitter and now even more means) that the event that happened at that time each week, was indeed happening at the same time this week, and it would be really great to see them, because the church wouldn’t be the same without them, and yes we would love to know every detail of their (delete as appropriate) breakup, new relationship, holiday, near miss on their bicycle etc.
If you didn’t see someone for a few weeks it may have been that they were checking out the latest super church 50 miles away which may have (delete as appropriate) great worship, great looking worship leaders, lots of hot girls looking for a great worship leader who might take a non worship leader if there wasn’t one available at that point. Or it might have been that they had simply stopped believing because of a circumstance that they faced, had got into a new relationship and that was a competing need, had studies to do, were inter railing abroad, X factor had brought out a Sunday night programme as well or Downton Abbey was sufficiently meeting their felt needs for connecting with historical figures.
Osmer in his book goes on to talk about the social shift around marriages which may make an interesting parallel to the above. Following Don Browning he notes that where once self-sacrifice characterised a generation’s understanding of marital love, now the commitment is to marriages characterised by ‘mutality’. Self-sacrifice is viewed negatively.
Osmer’s conclusion is that the church staff team has its back to the wall in coping with the marriage breakdowns it will face. ‘The staff would do well to pay particular attention to the emergence of mutuality as an increasingly important ideal of marital love and moral obligation. It might explore the normative resources of the Christian tradition that might deepen this ideal…’
In other words work with the flow of social drift and try and tweak or baptise it in a Christian direction. Notice that he doesn’t take the counter culture position. He could have said, ‘in an era where the self-sacrifice displayed in the core Christian virtue of AGAPE love is in jeopardy that you should restate that virtue again and again until you’ve produced disciples of Jesus who shine like stars in the universe’… Is the only way (let alone the ‘best’ way) to do young adults ministry to be the most attractive show in town, desperately hoping that they’ll reorientate to you if you meet their felt needs, and adjusting programme, practice and even principles for that end? Or is the high bar way of Jesus-Ben-Jospeh, the demanding Rabbi of Nazareth, still a model for En Y and Gen Z leadership today?
In a, very good, evangelist address I heard recently, the audience were invited to the 3 Bs of belonging, believing and becoming. A previous generation would remember those 3 Bs as belonging, believing and behaving. Why the slip from behaving to becoming? Well on the one hand the audience certainly didn’t want the young preacher to tell them how to behave… They weren’t interested in being socially adjusted and would have heartily, if internally, resisted any strong rally call for their personal ethical transformation. And on the other hand ‘becoming’ was a very well and enticingly explained term. The explanation orientated around story telling: I had a friend, he went on a 10 week course… he had any number of questions and was interested in every point of view… we and great discussions… on week 5 I prayed for him… something happened… he described the feeling he got like the experience of honey sweetly dripping all over him [!?]… he asked how I was doing that… doing what? I said… we’d simply asked for the Spirit of God to come and this friend was now experiencing his sweet presence… and who wouldn’t want that – perhaps minus the sticky honey.
The address was well received and culturally relevant. At some point in the future those hearers might think: I could do with something in my life… my friend the preacher told stories about something that sounded great… maybe I’ll go back for more… But on this definition they will still have light years to go in terms of becoming and behaving more like Christ.
At what point, if any, should the contemporary church endeavour to fulfil the less known part of Jesus’s final commission: ‘teach them to obey everything I have commanded you to’?
Do we dance around trying to keep in step with a rapidly changing movement hoping that occasionally we will play the lead and reorientate people a little in a godwards direction? Or do we cry like a prophet of old and call out to the LORD that this is no good. Do we do the experience driven Alpha or do we do doctrinally deliberate Christianity Explored!
The answer seems complex and varied. It is context and calling specific. But I am not sure that we can afford to let responding to Quest Spirituality be our only methodology. Inevitably you end up answering yesterday’s question with diluted divine decrees.
If you’ve been fed by a diet of today’s conference speakers and you take the time to read the radical messages of the Evangelical Revival you will be staggered by the weighty challenge Wesley, Whitefield and co lay before their often unchurched and skeptical audiences.
At the very core, and in different ways, they were concerned to present perfect to God those whom they ministered to. They were concerned for deep sanctification. That was their vision of Kingdom Come. Not so much honey as holy. Not meeting felt needs but core spiritual needs.
Should anyone sound the gong for this sort of preaching again?