As I read the responses to the questions and reflected on them, these three themes emerged most clearly:
- How the church created community: a sense of belonging and friendship
- How strong convictions were the foundations of this community
- How the complexity of life has challenged people’s faith journeys since
I believe these are issues and insights which are significant for the whole Church.
In writing about the responses, I am fully aware that I am no neutral observer and that I hold beliefs that affect my analysis. I would encourage everyone to read the summary of the responses and reflect on the conclusions you come to. I would welcome comments which critique my thoughts as well share their own reflections.
1. Community: creating belonging and authentic friendships
One of the most obvious elements which people appreciated about the church was the genuine sense of community. The creativity, compassion and friendship of this church community during this period of time was something deeply cherished by the respondents, irrespective of their current beliefs.
It is relevant that the size of the community meant that most people knew each other. Also it was a community which gave people opportunities to serve practically and be stretched in their thinking rather than just ‘consuming’ what the church provided.
Perhaps the clearest and most enduring impact that the church has had is the deep and lasting friendships that the church helped bring about. The church’s intentionality about encouraging people to socialise in the pub after services, regular socials and weekends away, helped people form deep friendships, many of which are maintained today.
It is interesting that these friendships have endured between those who have maintained their faith and those who have rejected faith and/or stopped going to church. One person, who is now strongly critical of Christianity, said in their response that they had a great friend (made at the church during that period) staying at their house at the time they wrote their response. Clearly, many friendships have endured irrespective of people’s current spiritual perspective.
But the responses also show the important role that friendship has had in people sustaining their faith. A major part of growing in faith was, and continues to be, through spending time with friends who are also seeking to follow Jesus. As someone said in reply to the final question about the advice you would give your younger self: These people will be your Christian buddies; they will sustain your need for fellowship in years to come.
The appreciation for genuine community is an illustration of the deep thirst for connectivity and friendship in our increasingly isolating society. It shows the church’s key role in providing a space where people can meet and engage positively with each other. This role has become even more significant in a world where so much of the connectivity is virtual rather than face to face.
It is interesting that in the 20 years since, the national Church has both declined numerically in terms of numbers attending whilst at the same time, increased its community-impact through running foodbanks, night shelters, debt centres and a host of other church-based social action initiatives.
Churches continue to be some of the most significant developers of what sociologists call social capital. They create both bonding social capital by providing spaces which bring people together who have a similar background, but also they create bridging social capital which connect those who are from different backgrounds.
It is clear from the responses that the community and friendship forged within the church was vital: it incarnated the faith that was spoken of and sung about. It is also true that for many in the years since, their inability to find a church which could provide a similar quality of community has been a key factor in their struggles to maintain their faith.
The appreciation for the community the church provided reminded me of something theologian Lesslie Newbigin wrote in The Household of God: “It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community.”
In a fragmented and individualised world, bringing people together around a shared belief and purpose is right at the heart of what the church is.
2. Conviction: the foundation of faith
In many ways it is inevitable that people appreciate ‘community’: it is one of those elements in society that is impossible not to appreciate. Everyone wants society to have a stronger sense of community: the deeper question is what factors lead to community being developed?
This is important because ‘community’ does not appear by itself; people do not gather around a vacuum. It generally comes about as a result of a sense of conviction in individuals or institutions who inspire and motivate others to be part of what they are doing.
So it would be superficial to celebrate the sense of community and ignore the conviction which provided the foundation on which this community was built. We should recognise the vision of the Parish leadership who chose to invest in the building and released valued members to plant a new congregation. We should not show an appreciation for the fruits of community without acknowledging the roots from which it grew.
The new congregation started with just a handful of people who initially met in a house whilst the building was being prepared. There was a strong sense of conviction about ‘making and maturing disciples of Jesus’ which drove the whole initiative.
In the responses the word ‘inspired’ was used a number of times. It is a word worth reflecting on because it shows the impact of strong Christian convictions which permeated the church.
And although the church was planted into an old pub building, it was not a slick or a highly trendy type of culture, nor was it dependent on one or two highly charismatic leaders. The Bible teaching, worship, home groups and courses (such as Gifts of Grace which was referred to in responses) were in many ways quite straightforward. They are appreciated, not because they were clever or impressive, but because they were authentic and empowering. They shared convictions in ways that developed faith in others.
This culture in the church clearly inspired many people to go deeper, to follow Jesus in a more committed way. This had all kinds of repercussions. For me, it influenced key decisions about my work and to buy a flat close to the church. For another it played a significant role in him deciding to work abroad in disaster response work with Tearfund.
In short, the church was a community informed by a strong conviction.
As we will focus on in the next section, many people since have struggled to maintain the same level of belief or involvement in church that they participated in back in those days. But it is clear that the conviction which inspired so many people during this period was a key factor in what people appreciated about the church.
In response to the final question about what spiritual advice would you give your younger-self, one person reversed the question and asked how would our younger selves challenge us now about the state of our commitment? I think this is a valuable challenge. Whilst there are many valid reasons to question the certainties you hold when younger, it is also easy to become complacent and lukewarm in your convictions as you get older.
It is easy to polarise between convictions and community. Community can be seen as the warm, inclusive and experiential element which everyone likes. On the other hand convictions can be viewed as rigid, exclusive and dogmatic.
But actually they are inter-dependent: conviction creates strong communities and community is maintained by strong convictions. This is shown vividly in the book of Acts where the early church forges a counter-cultural community directly because of their unshakeable convictions about the resurrection of Jesus.
A side-line on grace & truth
As the title of my blog illustrates, I believe grace and truth provide a continually helpful balancing framework for Christian convictions. In John 1, Jesus is described as being full of grace and truth and in the gospel narratives, we see Jesus continually embodying a message of both God’s affirmation and forgiveness (grace) alongside a concern for how people live and respond to his message (truth).
I started thinking about grace and truth 20 years ago when I was at the church. This is because we were faced with the challenge of how we should respond to a man called Terry who we had got to know when we helped decorate his flat though the Decorating & Gardening project. Terry lived a very chaotic life due to his addictions and would frequently disrupt services by shouting out and verbally abusing people in the church.
We were faced with a dilemma about how best to respond. We concluded that we should always be a place of grace for Terry, but that we also needed to tell him the truth about the unacceptability of his behaviour. In practice this meant he often had to be escorted out of the services but was allowed back in for coffee. This practical blend of grace and truth meant that the church maintained a relationship with him and did not allow toxic behaviour to damage the community. Sadly, Terry died a few years later due to factors linked with his addictions. At his funeral his sister spoke about how important the church had been to him.
The practical balance of grace and truth is vital for all churches. This is what maintains both community and conviction.
3. Complexity: struggles in sustaining faith
But of course, just as strong Christian convictions played a key role in making the church what it was, we have to be honest about the struggles that many people have had in maintaining those convictions in the years since.
There is no doubt that the main shift in the faith perspective between now and 20 years ago among the respondents is towards what they described as a more open, and less narrow, form of faith. Unsurprisingly, this shift was particularly clear in those who no longer go to church, but it was also a clear direction of travel for those who are still attending churches.
This is part of a wider trend within evangelicalism where the theology and approach of conservative churches mean they can be strong on helping people begin a journey of faith, or running children’s or youth work, but can struggle to help people maintain faith through the complexity of life. Many who have been part of these Christian cultures talk of a painful, but often liberating, ‘deconstruction’ of their faith where they have let go of many of the Evangelical formulations of faith.
Many of the classic elements of this deconstruction of faith is evident in the responses. Some referred to theological issues such as judgement and penal substitutionary atonement (Jesus’ died to appease God’s anger). Others wrote about being more comfortable with mystery and less certainty than they used to hold to. Others wrote about how the challenges of their life have changed their perspective, a number referred to a shift to accept people with LGBT sexuality and some expressed anger about the way conservative teachings exclude people they now accept.
20 years ago the church’s theological position was influenced by a conservative evangelical emphasis (e.g. the key leaders had completed the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Bible teaching course). It is a theological perspective that the majority of respondents signalled that they had moved away from.
I think it is undeniable that many people’s faith has not been able to be sustained in the same form as they expressed it 20 years ago. They may look back appreciatively at the period of time but elements of the teaching now seems narrow and unable to make sense of the world as it once did.
So although the conviction was appreciated, it has also struggled to be sustained. What does this mean for the way churches express and teach the faith?
It illustrates the need for humility which often is not the hallmark of evangelical churches. Too often, evangelical culture can be dismissive of other traditions and can present itself as the one true expression of Christian belief rather than a tradition which has strengths and weaknesses.
The widespread ‘deconstruction’ of faith is a big issue within evangelical culture, popular podcasts such as Nomad are focussed on this theme. Instead of being labelled as ‘unbiblical’, ‘backsliders’ or ‘liberals’, evangelical churches should encourage honest dialogue among their congregations about the issues which cause people to walk away from the church. Alongside humility, there needs to be more honesty.
Personally, I have found Greg Boyd’s teaching and his Re:Knew podcast helpful in navigating these issues. Boyd often says ‘I don’t believe as many things as I once did, but those things I do believe, I am more certain of.’ He is just one example of some great Bible teachers who are helping Christians maintain, renew and re-construct a faith in Jesus which can cope with complexity and challenge.
Questions in an age of Covid
Covid threatens the health and well-being of our communities in a way that has never been seen before. More than ever there is the need for the church to share and embody the good news of Jesus.
I believe that the themes of community, conviction and complexity are incredibly relevant for the task facing the church. These are some questions for church congregations and Christians to consider:
- In a lonely world, how can we build authentic community, which helps foster deep friendships and welcomes newcomers?
- How can we deepen our convictions around following Jesus and offer his grace and truth as a basis for negotiating life and its challenges?
- How can we help people maintain faith in the midst of the complexity of the real world? Can we be more humble and honest about the grey areas and difficulties?
The main pursuit…
One respondent wrote a sentence which really struck me and caused me to reflect. It expresses something right at the heart of what church exists to do:
“My main pursuit now is to really come to know and believe that God loves me. That would be truly liberating and life-changing.”
The core task of the Church is to show how this pursuit can be met through faith in Jesus. More than ever the world needs a love which is liberating and life-changing.
In a complex world, the church is a community built on this conviction.