I was talking to a colleague at the Archdeaconry conference this week. He was telling me about some of the issues confronting him at his church. I know the Bible says ‘Do not be envious’, but I must admit to being envious of ‘successful’ congregations. But one thing that I learned this week was: no matter how successful or secure a place seems to be, each place has its issues o deal with, and so really, no one place is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than another. Anyway, my colleague was telling me that there is some pressure in his congregation for them to ‘look like’ the big meetings that go on over summer, with thousands of people, and big international speakers.
I asked him what he thought this meant. His analysis was that people wanted to be part of a ‘success’ story and that some folk wanted to reproduce in their local congregation the circumstances of their ‘home’ church and that there was a kind of consumerism in religion, that matched the consumerism of the society, so that what goes on in Church on a Sunday becomes a kind of ‘religious product’ to be consumed by those attending, and evaluated according to their needs. He was contrasting this culture, with the one that he wanted to emphasise, which was a culture of Christianity that also involved service to others, and a ministry in the world or in the church for each person.
This sparked my attention in all kinds of ways that I thought might be useful for us, and so I share my thoughts with you.
The first thing that comes to me is this: that the issue of making the transition from being a religious consumer to being a disciple is one that is around in a lot of places. I remember talking to Ian Mobsby at St. Matthew’s Westminster. He is involved in the ‘emerging church’ or ‘fresh expressions’ movement. He said that his main task was to try to turn spiritual tourists into pilgrims. That is the same kind of thing as my colleague was talking about.
Richard Norris, in his contribution to the book ‘The Baptismal Mystery and the Catechumenate’ from a more Anglo-catholic point of view was talking about baptismal practices as trying to achieve the same end: that of making disciples from customers. Listen to this quote from him: “The Church is indeed ‘different’ in the sense of being optional and not for everyone; but on the other hand it is very much built into its society and its culture as offering and performing an accepted set of, standard set of services….[to restore the Church something like St. Clemment knew would involve a Church] composed of disciples rather than customers, because its members have undergone a process of re-socialisation… ”
So my question is ‘How does this happen’. It so happens that my doctoral studies touched on this very theme. When people are teenagers, their faith is one that is characterized by the word ‘Belonging’. The beliefs of each individual are taken from the group, because like ‘Face-book’ it is more important to ‘have friends’ than to be your own person. That comes later. People who have a ‘belonging’ faith are in general ‘takers’ of religion than contributors to it. This is not meant in a negative way, but it functions in the same way as a person who has not done any Chemistry is a ‘taker’ of the results of other people’s experiments, rather than a doer of experiments themselves. To become a contributor to Christian faith, means doing the work that turns a ‘belonging faith’ into an owned faith. It means being game enough to ‘act oneself into new ways of thinking’. This was what I did, for example, when I wanted to know if I had a vocation to the priesthood. I went to the prison chaplain, and asked if I could work in the prison, to see if I could do the job of a priest. The same is true of adult Christians. To move from a ‘belonging faith’ to an ‘owned’ faith requires that people be committed to acting on behalf of that faith. That is what the early church asked of its new members: that they start learning about Christian faith, by acting differently. Also, the ideas and teachings of the faith need to be thought through, so that they satisfy an adult mind. Take the Eucharist, for example. I have had two c0onversations now with people who have said ‘I don’t think that the bread really changes at the Eucharist.’ So in that statement is about three years’ worth of investigation and conversation to unpack what it means, and for the people who made it to give an account of themselves rather than ‘I don’t know much about theology, but I know what I think.’
So the first thing that I learned from the conversation with my colleague, is that we at St. John’s and he at his congregation have the same job: to try to help Christians become adult disciples.
The second thing that made me prick up my ears had to do with people’s preoccupation with size. Size is something, but not everything. Sociologically speaking, the size of a group helps the members of that group to believe in the reality of the faith. If you are in solitary confinement, with only opponents of your faith to talk to, it is very hard to keep believing it. But if there is a small group, where a person can talk personally, then it is easier to keep believing. The issues that come up for each person can be attended to, at that level. But we also belong to suburbs or communes. We need groupings the size of a parish church, to say to the commune ‘We have a reality that is established and sends a message to this whole town.’ That is the dimension of our faith. It is easier to believe in Christian faith when there are lots of people who share it, and these people can be seen. Finally there is the rare, big gathering that sends the believers the message ‘Wow! I belong to a world wide organisation’ or as recently happened in Spain, the whole of the youth of Europe gathered to say ‘Christian faith is an Europe wide phenomenon. We are not hidden in a corner, in just one town!’ These three dimensions correspond to meetings of about 10 people, a suburban church, and a Diocese. Only to belong to a huge church means missing out on the small group dimension, and on the middle size gathering. Only to belong to a small group means missing out on the parish or diocesan dimensions of the faith, and may lead to discouragement or narrow-mindedness. Only to belong to a parish church also misses out n the broadening of experience that larger groupings can give, and the personal dimension of a small group. So bigger is not better! It helps, but is not everything.
Thank you my colleague for this stimulation of my thought.