…or, being realistic in churches about what can be achieved.
In Worship and Mission After Christendom (2011), Alan and Eleanor Kreider suggest that, until recently, the terms ‘Worship’ and ‘Mission’ were rarely used together as a single phrase. In Christendom times responsibility for ‘Worship’ was the job of professional clergy, created for a population who habitually attended once a week. Meanwhile the task of ‘Mission’ was handed to a separate group of professionals, employed and commissioned by organisations such as the London Missionary Society, Church Mission Society and Baptist Missionary Society, who were sent overseas to convert non-Christians in far away lands. Meanwhile, the job of congregations in this country was to fund and pray for them. (pp.1-3)
In many churches the prevailing culture which separates worship from mission remains so utterly dominant it is hard to break. Religion has, until recently, been the preserve of our personal lives. That is not to say individual Christians haven’t always lived out their own call to discipleship. It is simply that responsibility for a church’s corporate mission was seen as the responsibility of a small group of experts.
Those in the habit of ‘going to church’ have been used to listening to a sermon, the contents of which they can absorb and adopt privately, with no requirement to discuss what they have heard; not with the worshippers sitting next to them or – heaven help them – with someone they might encounter outside the church.
Even for those who know change is both necessary and inevitable, being the product of Christendom culture makes the challenge of becoming actively ‘missional’ uncomfortable. The truth is that, for most members who are the product of Christendom Church, the transition from passive worshipper to full-on evangelist is terrifying – and utterly implausible.
What then, are we to do, if we who are passionate about the Church and want to see a future for it, actually find the prospect of ‘evangelism’ terrifying?
Changing Sunday Morning Worship (or not!)
Let us begin with the issue of worship.
Steve Aisthorpe, in his fascinating study The Invisible Church: Learning from the Experiences of Churchless Christians (2016), starts by debunking seven myths about why churches are in decline. One is “if congregations do the right things leavers will become returners.”
Although 30% of leavers surveyed in the 2015 Faith in Scotland study said they would consider returning to church if they were offered a different style of worship, the majority said they wouldn’t. While some non-attenders interviewed by Aisthorpe would consider joining a small group for discussion, the majority have found leaving the church liberating, enabling them to pursue what they believe to be their Christian vocation outside the bounds of institutional religion.
This implies that, while offering different opportunities for Christian worship and/or formation holds merit, simply changing services on Sunday mornings is not the answer. Adding the odd chorus or discussion section to a traditional service format is not going to attract anyone new – although it might appeal to some who are disillusioned but still attending.
The positive outcome of this myth-debunking is to relieve traditional congregations, who value their style of worship and are fed spiritually by it, from feeling they ought to change. My suggestion is that, when it comes to Sunday mornings leave well alone, but get those who do attend to accept that, while it is right for them, their preferred method of spiritual succour is not for everyone.
If Jesus is for everyone – and I sincerely hope every Christian believes that – then an alternative form of worship and/or Christian formation needs to be found – or at lest experimented with, at a different time and possibly in a different venue. Sunday morning worshippers need not attend these new activities – but they should be advocating for, encouraging, praying for and blessing them. That in itself is a change in attitude, changing the focus of the church from inward to outward looking.
Changing the focus of the church
In their book The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church (2012), Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim suggest that, to create fertile ground for the church in the 21st century, a change in mindset is needed. They suggest that, rather than using time and energy maintaining the church as it is, Christians should be encouraged to think creatively how they might best contribute to the mission of God.
In practice this means refocusing one’s efforts away from church activities, and concentrating on how to be ‘salt and light’ in the world. Focussing the growth of the church on attracting people on Sunday mornings with the expectation that half the British population will wake up one morning with a sudden desire to ‘go to church’ is utterly unrealistic.
One of the benefits of this change in focus is that it releases members of churches which no longer provide huge numbers of activities, from toddler groups to tea dances, from a sense of failure and guilt. “We used to..” and “We’ve already tried…” are rarely helpful ways to start a sentence when discerning what God is calling churches to next.
Instead members might consider their own life of discipleship – not necessarily the rotas they are on or church organisations they support – but their own day to day activities. It might be that in their spare time they do the shopping for a neighbour or help out at a local charity shop. In their professional lives they might work in an office or provide a service for others. As members of a family with friendships they will have a circle of relationships to which they are committed.
Hirsch and Catchim suggest that none of these things are divorced from the life of faith, just because they do not take place within the confines of a church building or context of a church family. Discipleship is the act of living as a follower of Jesus; not just at church but during every hour of every day. Serving the Church – which is the body of Christ – is incorporated into all these things; and they are all aspects of building the Kingdom of God, regardless of their level of interaction with the institutional Church.
Church members will often display a sense of guilt because they can’t manage to take on yet another task for the church. By transforming the way discipleship is defined, channels are opened up for people to continue their walk with Jesus guilt-free, liberated to enjoy life more, and become an example of Christianity that inspires and attracts people to want to know more about. The London Institute of Contemporary Christianity has excellent resources to help churches think in this way. One course, Fruitfulness on the Front Line, has been successfully used by churches. See here how it inspired members of Muddiford United Reformed Church.
Being Realistic about Who Can Achieve What
Despite what seems like a relentless desire by some within church traditions to equate discipleship with evangelism, they are not the same thing. Paul’s describes a multitude of gifts required to “build up” the Christian community (Ephesians 4.1-16). Only one of these is ‘evangelist’. Discipleship can take on many forms, one of which is persuading others to follow Jesus, but not everyone has strong debating skills in their make-up. Trying to make people what they’re not – for the sake of Christ – is not, I would suggest, very Biblical.
For those congregations without natural evangelists it is very depressing to keep hearing they must ‘make new disciples’ if ‘making new disciples’ is understood only to refer to evangelism. The truth is that few people come to faith through hearing a testimony and undergoing an instant radical conversion experience. For most it is a journey and, if current experts are to be believed, a longer one than it once was.
There are ways of helping people along without headlong evangelistic fervour. A more realistic way of doing it is accompaniment. Someone being accompanied on those first steps of faith might eventually be ready to attend a course such a Alpha or Essence, but equally, if not more important, is the gentle presence of someone alongside, who is open to questions, having been inspirational enough to make someone want to ask in the first place.
Attracting New Sunday Morning Worshippers
I am constantly amazed by those who are puzzled that no-one new comes to their church – when they have never invited anyone. “Isn’t that the job of the minister?” asks a member of a congregation which hasn’t had its own minister for many years, and has no real prospect of obtaining one.
The evidence is that the majority of people who start to attend church do not do so in a vacuum. They are attracted by the example of a Christian known to them, are invited to church by them, are welcomed when they attend, and are accompanied as they are introduced to what ‘going to church’ is like.
For someone completely new to church culture, attending a Sunday service can be both intimidating and puzzling. Although the members of a church have emotional attachments both to their fellow worshippers and building, new people will not. Troubling aspects of services such as poor preaching, problems with the music, inadequate heating or uncomfortable chairs will be overlooked by those emotionally attached; but if someone trying church for the first time is bored, cold or uncomfortable it is unlikely they will return.
Churches which do grow through worship services invest in creating a quality worship experience. This is not to say everyone wants church to include a professional worship band and renowned preacher. But acknowledging and committing to addressing issues which might be putting off current worshippers from inviting someone else to ‘come to church’ could be a start in transforming the quality of worship experience they offer.
This article has been an attempt to make a few tentative suggestions for those who desperately desire to see their church grow and thrive, but cannot see a way beyond the current decline. The changes I am suggesting are not expensive – except for churches who might decide to employ professionals to continue a traditional pattern of ‘Worship and Mission’. They are to do with realisation, a change in attitude, and a change in focus; simple ways to share a faith in Jesus which can be sustaining, challenging, and ultimately irresistible to others.
Aisthorpe, S, 2016, The Invisible Church: Learning from the Experiences of Churchless Christians (Edinburgh, St Andrews Press)
Hirsch , A and Catchim, T, 2012, The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church (San Francisco, Jossey Bass)
Kreider A. and Kreider E, 2011, Worship and Mission After Christendom (Milton Keynes, Paternoster)