The Challenge Facing Contemporary Churches

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Ours is a time of church decline. However, I believe, it also a time of opportunity for churches. If the churches are to seize the opportunities, they will need to start from a good analysis of the present religious climate and be strategic in their efforts. It is no good resorting to steps that might have paid dividends 50 years ago, but which are now ineffectual.
The decline in churches is palpable. Church attendance continues to fall, as do occasional offices such as church weddings and funerals. The church is running out of clergy, lay officers and money and church-going Christians are dwindling. Fewer people now know once-familiar hymns and Bible stories. The large number of rather nominal Christians who used to give their religion as C-of-E now say ‘none’. Church is dismissed by others as irrelevant and more.
Despite this, we live in an age when there has been a remarkable resurgence of spirituality. People visit churches in large numbers, even if not during services. There is much interest in meditation, mindfulness and in Western Buddhism. Belief in the afterlife and in angels is growing. More people than ever go on pilgrimages, and there is much interest in physically demanding spiritual practices. There is also interest in monasticism, in both old and new forms. There is a new disciplined abstinence observable among the young, and a widespread interest in life values and moral improvement, etc.
The tragedy is that the declining church seems unable to catch this spiritual tide, or to connect with it fruitfully. I don’t think that is inevitable. There are many in this ‘age of spirituality’ (as it has been called) who are happy to be drawn into church (or back into it), if they find in churches the quality of spirituality that they seek. Church-goers are probably not un-spiritual people, but they often seem to have other more pressing priorities, and to keep whatever spirituality they have very private, hidden ‘under a bushel’. I think there is a good future for a church that can connect with the spiritual tide that is running strongly in society
I believe such a connection can be forged by churches that have strong traditional roots in both worship and belief, but which are confident enough to reach out far and wide from those roots. The present situation does not call for a complete abandonment of the roots and traditions of the church. It is a help, not a hindrance, in connecting with the present age of spirituality, if churches are secure in word and sacrament. But they need to inhabit their traditions in a confident, flexible way.
There is something else that is important if churches are to catch the current spiritual tide. It helps to be a church that welcomes individualists and which doesn’t expect everyone to think and do the same things. Churches should be content for different people to find their own way, at their own speed, and to be remarkable tolerant and inclusive. If you have put down strong roots, the walls can come down too, allowing people to be half-in/half-out, and to chart their own path.

There are various specific ways in which churches can create a space for the exploration of spirituality:

  • The arts (music, poetry, drama, art, dance) provide a good way of reaching out to spiritual people and could be central in a church that was reaching out to our spiritual age.
  • There can also be a welcome for worship that has simplicity and silence, for services that use minimal words, use chanting rather than hymns. That seems to connect with people who are not drawn to traditional church services.
  • Many people are very interested in religion and want to understand it better. For some people the path of exploration is the most accessible and approachable way into actually being Christian. I think it works best for that exploration of religion to be multi-disciplinary rather than narrowly theological and to make use of perspectives such as those of psychology and the social sciences. They are now more part of the common currency of thought than theology, and are also free from any hint of religious dogmatism.
  • Many people are very interested in meditation but sadly few think of churches as a place where they might learn to do that. People who come to a meditation group already have some way of meditating that works for them, but find it easier to do it in a group where people support each other. However, there does need to be some basic guidance for those new to meditation.
  • There is also a need for a place where people can explore deep personal and spiritual issues, through dreams or other kinds of personal material. It can be helpful for churches to establish a safe context in which those who wish can do spiritual self-exploration.
I have provided some material that may be useful for people interested in developing this kind of approach in a book to be published shortly by Lutterworth Press: Living Deeply: A Psychological and Spiritual Journey.