Theology & Church

20 years on: how faith has changed

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.

 Community

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.

Changes

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.

Honesty

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).

Reflections

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.

12 thoughts on “20 years on: how faith has changed”

  1. I really identified with this post and found it helpful, thank you. I’ve struggled to keep my faith strong and maintain my enthusiasm for church life over the last 10 years or so. When a vibrant church community is lost, for whatever reason, you have to work harder to keep your motivation high and I’ve not been good at that.

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  2. Jon

    I have read Faith Twenty Years on and send congratulations to you for your important research and thoughtful writing about it.

    I have been reading Alistair McGrath’s book “Through a Glass Darkly” which tells of the development of his thinking and faith over the years. His book has reminded me that all growth necessarily involves change. Alistair is also strong on his repeated point that faith and certainty are not the same thing. In his youth he was searching for certainty.

    Do you know these words of John Henry Newman? “To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often”.

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    1. Dear Henry – how nice to hear from you. Many thanks for reading the research and for your kind comment. I think this dynamic or tension, between certainty and faith is so interesting. I did not know the quote from Newman so thanks!

      We need to have confidence that this following of Jesus is something we can base our life on, even though we know so little of the overall picture. I like a quote I heard from Newbigin ‘Hold fast to Jesus and to everything else remain profoundly uncommitted’.

      Love to your family, Jon

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  3. Thanks Jon. Great quote from Lesley Newbigin. I heard something similar recently from a book by Rachel Held-Evans, along the lines of doubting our ideas about God being vital for faith, but doubting God himself can be the death of it. In my 20s I too was part of a vibrant church community, which sounds quite similar, that changed alot as we got older. Many of us started families and life got tougher as we experienced more pain although there was a lot of joy too. I sometimes think of those early days being like the Fellowship of the Ring with the feeling of adventure and camaraderie, whereas the later years feel more like the Two Towers, as people move away and onto new things and the reality of life and some of the battles we fight can be hard. Currently my journey feels a bit more like Return of the King, as there are still significant battles to fight but I know our King will return and that gives me great hope. Having a good theology of suffering and giving space for expressing pain in fellowship without platitudes is so important.

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    1. thanks Mark. I think its really helpful to overlay the Lord of the Rings story onto this – its a story which should disarm us of any beliefs that a life of faith is a stroll in the park or that it will not involve pain, loss and immense difficulty.

      I think one of the hardest realities is how hard church life is. I just read this in Eugene Peterson’s book on Ephesians ‘Practise Resurrection’ ‘Many Christians find church to be the most difficult aspect of being a Christian’. I would agree!

      Thanks for reading and for your comment.

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  4. Thanks Jon. This is good stuff. I was particularly interested to see that much of it seemed to reflect the good things/challenges/sins(?!) of the Church across the country. In fact, it perhaps reflects questions we’re asking on a national level beyond the Church too. At its best a community of people caring for each other, giving people a sense of belonging, wrestling with tough questions and life events with the support of others. And at its worst the flip side of that: marginalising those who are different from the majority, excluding some, splintering and breaking when we are under the pressure of have to tackle tough times or disagreement, finding it difficult to answer the question ‘how is Church more than being a group of mates’.

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    1. Thanks Matt. I think that is a really interesting and insightful comment – and especially relevant to the issues in the country at the moment. Authentic church has to be more than a group of mates – but it is harder than hanging out with ‘people like us’. I think this is why diversity is instinctively recognised by so many as an authentic mark of God’s kingdom at work – but ALSO why it is so hard in practice.

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  5. wish I had been involved with the charitable work at HUSSO when i was in Hull
    Great that university gave you and others more qualifications .

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  6. that should have said
    “wish I had been involved with the charitable work at HUSSO when i was in Hull
    Great that university gave you and others more than just qualifications.”

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  7. May I say that I was very interested to read about your research project ‘Faith 20 years on’ and appreciated your clear analysis of the findings.
    I think you always welcome feedback, so here, for what they’re worth, are my reflections:

    The church you describe, and belonged to, was clearly a community buzzing with life and purpose. But I was left with the question ‘Did it try to be, and to do, too much?’
    In other words, was it, in effect, aiming to be a visible expression of the Kingdom of God by trying to build a community where the needs of its members –
    for friendship, belonging, connectedness, mutual support, neighbourly care, meaning, truth, identity, and grace – could mostly be met in that one context?
    Might this therefore have created in their minds an inflated – but unrealistic – image of what a church is about? If so, might this have been one cause of disappointment
    and disillusion to some members when they left the church and perhaps failed to find one that replicated that pattern,
    or jettisoned the whole experience because it seemed to be no longer relevant to them
    when they moved on, struggling to deal with the inevitable ‘complexities’ of life?

    Someone once observed that too often the laity are sucked into serving the church’s life and activities instead of being liberated and empowered to serve the world.

    So, here’s an alternative understanding of the role of the church in society which, I think, is both discrete and distinctive:

    The church’s primary task is to gather diverse and often ‘disconnected’ people together
    regularly to share, mainly through worship, word and sacrament,
    in an experience of ‘comm-union’ (rather than ‘community’),
    where they are envisioned (with ‘convictions’),
    renewed (by grace) and empowered (in the Spirit),
    to go back into the world to serve the Kingdom, and discover community, there.

    There’s a lot more that could be debated here…

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    1. thanks David for reading and commenting. I think your question about the difference between ‘comm-union’ and ‘comm-unity’ is really interesting. I think your question boils down to the tensions caused by having too high expectations of what the church community can do and should be in of itself – as opposed to the focus on how the church empowers and enables people to live Christian lives out in the world.

      I think some forms of ‘community’ really speak to people. For example, its really important that most churches now have coffee after the service after most services whereas in the 70s/80s this was more rare. Also home groups seem a really key part of being part of a community. I agree that the main focus should be empowering people to live Christian lives 24-7 but I think some core aspects of community enable this.

      Lets talk more!

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