Earlier this year I got caught up in a snowstorm in Glasgow. Unexpectedly, (Glaswegians pride themselves on being able to handle a fair bit of snow) the ice and snow disabled all transport networks in and out of the city, leaving many travellers in hastily booked city centre hotels overnight.
Late that evening many stranded passengers congregated around our hotel bar. The Scots in general (Glaswegians in particular) are renowned for their unshakeable optimism, dry humour and whisky drinking. All three flowed liberally that evening, raising our spirits in what could otherwise have been a rather miserable end to a long day. Nevertheless, there were some serious undertones to the banter, mostly political, some religious. One woman felt she had been ill-treated by the Christian Church’, whilst another argued that they did “do some things well”, like the dignified beginnings and endings they bestowed on individuals through ceremonies and the way they brought communities together in times of grief and joy. Many more stories followed about church gatherings, some humorous, a few pitiful, many poignant. All were narratives of the Christian Church as a social institution.
Back in my hotel room, my thoughts drifted between news and rail company updates about the weather situation for the following day and the “bar gathering’s” collective notion of the Christian Church.
I hung onto that woman’s words about the dignified ceremonies of the Church, looking, I think, for more meaning than she ever intended. I wanted to believe she was searching for the sacred, and that ‘sacred‘ was infinitely more than candles, stained glass, memories, kind words and shared grief or joy.
The “ill-treatment” the woman at the bar had suffered at the hands of the Christian Church involved an incident in which a minister of a small village church had apparently put too much emotional pressure on her teenage daughter to continue to attend a local youth group. In reality, the minister had told her daughter on a few occasions how disappointed he was that she had left the group. The woman argued that from his position of ‘power’ in the community, the minister’s words were reprobate, deeply hurtful to them both, and the reason they would never go to church again. Someone then pitched in about an article they had read about emotional abuse within churches, but no-one seemed interested. Not even the woman herself believed this should be called abuse but clearly, she needed to have a reason to walk away from the church, an explanation (to self or others, who knows) for turning her back on God.
Society has long viewed churches as social institutions. In 1896, Fairchild claimed that ” the rise in sociology was the salvation of the church.” He argued that so long as the church worked towards a social target agreed by society, both would exist harmoniously.
Many still recognise the Christian Church as having a social function. My own local church operates debt counselling services; clubs for vulnerable people including life skills training; ‘Foodbank’; addiction referral and support services and it also boasts a dedicated ‘pastoral’ support team. The Christian Church in the UK is perhaps just as socially relevant today as it ever has been.
Nevertheless, in the UK, society and the church are slowly drifting apart. Perhaps we have proved Fairchild’s hypothesis to be wrong? Alternatively, he did not allow for important confounding factors: aggressive secularism, a divided and weakened State Church, and a monarchy whose direct heir does not confess Christian faith.
Like those travellers around the bar, we too give our social excuses for not attending church. Millennials especially claim that the Christian Church is irrelevant to them. The number of twenty-somethings in churches has halved in the last two decades. (Evangelical Alliance website 2017) They feel unlistened to and undervalued (Sam Eaton, 12 reasons Millennials are OVER Church, Recklessly Alive Website) They say no-one “intentionally” connects with young singles in churches any more and no-one takes time to mentor them either. In addition, they strongly believe that the Christian Church does not go far enough in fighting social injustices.
Young families are often looking for something a little different from the Church: child-focused ministries, a space to socialise with other parents who have children of similar ages to theirs, opportunities for developing leadership skills for themselves and quality teaching experiences.
Middle-aged couples are often the ones who have leadership roles within the Christian Church. Having survived pews, long sermons, hymns and stuffy buildings in their “Sunday best” as children, they worked hard to change church culture during the millennial years. When the millennials were babes, they personally manned the creches in churches. They pioneered the reformation of the traditional Sunday morning church service (with tag-along Sunday school) into ‘all-age’ worship services and innovative church programmes specifically for young people. They embraced modern worship styles and fresh ways of doing global mission. They wrote most of these changes with their own finances too. These are the people who bound over to you at the newcomers coffee area after Sunday morning church, keen to make you feel welcome. You’ll often find them mentoring, or on the pastoral support team. They run leadership courses for younger people. They host mid-week house groups. They stay late to lock up. They also feel the weight of the social failure of the church and they pray and wonder how on earth it’s all happened under their careful watch?
Steve Bruce, Professor of Sociology at Aberdeen University, writes: “the only area of life where the church can compete with any secular institution or social practice and win, is in the glorification of God.” (unpublished letter to the Commission of the Church of Scotland)
The Christian church does not exist primarily as a beacon of social or moral stability, but rather as a facility for people to seek and worship God collectively.
If we don’t find God in church, then it will always make for a poor social experience. We will soon find another ritual or ceremony outside of the church that somehow seems just as meaningful. Our children will find more enriching experiences elsewhere. We will feel less let down by an organisation which we believed could meet our social needs and didn’t if we simply walk away.
The early church gatherings were specific and simply focused, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers. (Acts 2,42). In a very real sense, these early Christians felt they were meeting with Jesus himself, as He had promised, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18,20, ESV).
The overflow from these early worshipful gatherings was a true sense of sharing and meeting of one another’s needs, the unforced rhythms of grace, unity and love. A socially active church.
Don’t come to church with a list of needs, come with a worshipful heart.
Don’t tell people that you’ve found a great church with the perfect blend of teaching, nice people, fun stuff for the kids, and that it does lots for the community too. Tell them instead you’ve found a place where you can worship God with others and it feels like a spiritual home.
When you meet people who are disillusioned with the Christian Church for social reasons, tell them that you see Church a little differently. Spread the word that churches are places where people collectively worship God, where God meets with us. Explain to them that the Christian Church really is, a living, worshipping, body of believers (Romans 12, 4-5), who bear the witness and testimony of Jesus to the world at large.
Many worshipful hearts make a powerful movement, a message to the world that Jesus offers us more than a dignified death or a happy wedding day.