In 1996 I started attending an inner city church which had been planted by the Church of England into a former pub.
The congregation was mainly people in a similar stage of life and the church had a vibrancy and authenticity I really appreciated. I attended the evening services each week with expectation and excitement and my faith was enriched by the worship and teaching.
It was also a great community to be part of. Lots of people went to the pub after services, there was a lot of socials and meals, we had a church football team and ran a community project helping vulnerable people with decorating and gardening.
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.
It was a great time to be in your 20s and live in central London. It coincided with the optimism of the early New Labour years, the Brit-pop era and house prices which were far lower than today.
Back then the church felt like a community mainly made up of people with broadly similar outlooks. 20 years on, much has changed. People have taken different paths related to their faith and commitment to church. What was broadly similar is now much more diverse.
I was interested to find out more about the spiritual journeys of the people involved in the church at that time. As it was a relatively identifiable and contained group of people, I decided to do some research. I got as many contact details as I could and sent around 70 people a set of questions about how their faith perspective had developed or changed.
My motivation and purpose in doing this was because I believe there is a need for honesty about the realities of maintaining belief. We have much to gain from listening to the truth of people’s experiences.
In the end I got responses from 26 people who used to be part of the church. The responses are highly diverse and many of the comments are moving and powerful. I have produced a summary where I have grouped the responses to give coherence to what people said (see link below).
I have also written a longer article based on my reflections in reading and analysing the responses. My 3 main points are:
1. How the church developed community
People deeply cherished the community the church provided. It was a community small enough for everyone to know each other and for everyone to play a part and not just be a ‘consumer’ of church.
Perhaps the clearest and most enduring impact that the church has had is the deep and lasting friendships that the church helped bring about. These friendships have helped sustain people’s faith but have also endured with those who have rejected faith and/or stopped going to church.
2. How strong convictions were the foundations of this community
In the responses many referred to how ‘inspiring’ they found the church. It shows how the sense of community cannot be separated from the conviction on which it was built. 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.
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.
3. Complexity: struggles in sustaining faith
But just as strong Christian convictions played a key role in making the church what it was, the responses show the struggles that many people have had in maintaining those convictions in the years since. 18 of the 26 still attend church but many expressed a shift in their theological perspective.
At the time, the church’s theology was informed by a conservative evangelical perspective. Despite the appreciation for good teaching which stretched and grew people’s faith, many now view the formulations as narrow and not workable in the complexity of life. There was a consistent trend towards what is described as a more open and inclusive form of faith.
Many of the responses connected to the ‘deconstruction’ of faith which affects many who have been part of evangelical culture. I believe this shows the need for honesty and humility within the church about how people’s faith develops and changes.