I have recently completed some research on a group of people I was part of a church with in the 1990s. The research focussed on what had happened to their perspective on the Christian faith in the intervening 20 years.
Below is an introduction to the research and at the end there are links to a summary of the responses and an article reflecting on the findings, Community, conviction and complexity.
My experience of the church
In 1996 I started attending a church which had been planted by the local Church of England Parish into a former pub in central North London a couple of years before.
From its start, the congregation grew steadily and at Sunday evening services there was often a congregation of between 50-60 people, many of whom were in their 20s and had moved into the area after studying. The church’s mission was ‘to make and mature disciples of Jesus’ and the church had a specific emphasis on engaging the creative arts. There was also a priority placed on strong bible teaching, every member using their gifts and being a community of friendship and grace.
Vibrancy and authenticity
I loved being a part of this church. There was a vibrancy and authenticity in the church. The congregation was mainly people around my age and in a similar stage of life alongside a number of older and more vulnerable people. I attended services with expectation and excitement. My faith was enriched by the worship and teaching, and I enjoyed going to pub after services, church weekends away and playing in the church football team.
After my rented flat got flooded and I had to move out quickly, a couple in the church let me stay with them for over 2 months. I then bought my first flat close-by and church friends enthusiastically helped me decorate.
The church reached out to the community in various ways: a passion play was held in the local park, we hosted art competitions and ran various children’s and youth work alongside the other churches in the Parish. We also ran a project to help local people in need with decorating and gardening jobs.
For many people involved it was a special time in our lives. It coincided with the optimism of the early New Labour years, Brit-pop and house prices which were far lower than today. Inevitably, the experiences of church interrelated with the wider experience of being in your 20s, single and living in London.
In 2000, someone I knew via the church introduced me to Nikki and we were married in 2001. In 2003, due to expecting a baby and needing a larger flat, we moved to South London and left the church. We stayed in touch with many friends from the church and in 2014 it was fantastic to attend an event to celebrate the church’s 20th anniversary.
Back in the 1990s, the church felt like a community mainly made up of people with broadly similar outlooks. Of course there were debates and tensions on matters of theology and spirituality but there was also significant coherence and unity.
20 years on, I am aware that much has changed for many people involved. People have moved geographically and a wide range of circumstances have affected people’s lives. People have taken different paths related to their faith and commitment to church. What was broadly similar back then is now much more diverse.
As the church was new during this period of time in the 1990s and it involved a relatively specific and identifiable group of people, I was interested to find out more about the spiritual journeys of the people involved in the church at that time.
How had faith been sustained? What had changed in their faith perspective or commitment to church? And what factors were relevant in their journey?
I was aware that I could be no neutral researcher in this project. I was a part of the church and many of the people I sent my questionnaire to were friends. Also, I still hold many of the same beliefs that I did 20 years ago: I am a Christian and continue to attend church. To be more emphatic, I believe that following Jesus is the single best choice anyone could make in their lives.
But alongside this, I also believe there is an urgent need for honesty and openness about the realities of maintaining belief. We have nothing to fear, and much to gain, from engaging with the truth of people’s experiences and seeking to understand them.
In October 2020 I sent out questionnaires to around 70 people that I could get contact details for, who were all involved in the church between 1994-2001. These were my 7 questions:
- What years were you at the church?
- What did you most appreciate about the church at the time?
- How would you describe your faith during your time at the church?
- Are you regularly attending a church now?
- How would you describe the development and/or change of your faith or spiritual perspective since?
- What issues or situations have been most significant in this development or change?
- If you could return to the 1990s and give some faith-related advice or guidance to your younger self, what would it be?
In the end, I received 26 responses. I am grateful to those who responded because I was aware that I was treading on sensitive ground in asking such questions.
Thoughts about the process and who responded:
- People were mainly contacted by email or Facebook messenger.
- Many people expressed fascination and enthusiasm for the research. Three or four people articulated some mild suspicion about my motives and purpose for asking such questions.
- A number expressed keenness to respond but then didn’t. I chased people with reminders but I was conscious to not press people if they were reluctant to respond.
- I thought there would be a bias in the responses towards those still going to church. But some of the first responders were those with the most negative perspectives about church and Christianity.
- Based on the way the responses came in and the surrounding conversations, I concluded that people who are clear about their perspective (whether ‘positively’ or ‘negatively’) were more comfortable in responding to the questions.
- The name of the church has been removed because it is an on-going church fellowship and none of the respondees are current members. I was very grateful for the positive engagement of both former leaders and the current leader of the church.
The responses and reflections