A few years ago, I went along to an evening organised by Back to Church Sunday.
“Try to think of it as a whole season not just one Sunday,” said the leader, enthusiastically. “After Back to Church Sunday, you can invite people along to Harvest, All Souls, Remembrance and then there’s all the Christmas services…”
“The main reason that people don’t come to church,” he went on, “is because people don’t ask them. Research shows that 80% of people say that they would come to church if asked by a friend but only 2% of Christians ever ask anyone.”
At the time I found this compelling. Why were only 2% of Christians asking people to church? Why didn’t they at least invite people along to Harvest and Christmas? Why not take the risk of being rejected?
Now I think that it is not so simple.
Many of the people I know are fragile. Currently I know people experiencing recent bereavement, cancer, retirement, divorce, imminent new baby, depression, family conflict, new schools for their autistic children, constant pain…
If I am going to invite any of these people to church, I need to know that church is a safe place for them to be.
Is there any bullying going on by either clergy or laity? Is the church cliquey – do they welcome people warmly but then talk only to their friends at coffee time? Are they inclusive of those who are different from them in any way? Who makes the decisions and how are they made – are they imposed from the top or is there space for people to develop their own gifts and initiatives?
If I am going to invite any of these people to church, I want church to offer them a place to encounter God.
What are the church’s priorities? Does God figure or does it appear as if the main aim is to fundraise enough to pay parish share and have some over for the roof? Is the worship (whatever it is) authentic and done to the best of that church’s ability? Do I agree with the principles behind the worship? (In practice this means I can accept occasional computer problems and dyslexic stumbling over words but not the all age worship based on “God wants us to have fun and be nice” or the preacher who uses the sermon to describe the faults of the congregation.) Is there space for God?
No church is perfect, but it is possible to have “good enough” churches. It is also possible for a church to have one service that meets my criteria, even if the other services don’t.
And I have known a few churches where I do not ask these questions.
What distinguishes these churches?
It seems to me that it is a kind of humility.
I do not have that kind of humility myself, but I have known and been part of churches where it exists. Sometimes it is one particular service rather than the church as a whole – I have come across it in all age, morning prayer and Eucharistic services.
These churches (or services) have fewer numbers than the more “successful” churches around them. They are definitely not the “top church” in a multi-parish rural benefice, a town or a city locality. Often, they are vulnerable to potential closure or pastoral re-organisation.
It is almost as if they have given up on being the kind of church that the diocese wants and so have been freed up to be the kind of church that God wants, the kind where He can send people. I remember one occasion when a 19 year old who was having problems at work arrived at the all age service. Due to the structure of the service and an extended coffee time he was able to spend the best part of an hour talking to someone who listened to him. He never came again; we did not expect him to.
But two other people, both vulnerable in different ways and both unlikely to have church as part of their lives, came and became regular attenders. The numbers were still very low, but this did not seem to matter.
These churches are a paradox. They seem to have no awareness of how special they are – how could they since as soon as you become aware of your humility you start to lose it?
Humility is included in the strapline for the Vision and Strategy Initiative put forward by Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York: “Simpler, bolder, humbler.”
But how can humility be a top down initiative? What would a diocesan course in “How to make your church humbler” look like? How could they measure its success? For this is the problem with initiatives – there needs to be some way of evaluating them and there is no way to evaluate humility.
So, for now, most of us will have to settle for being a “good enough” church. But if you are lucky enough to come across a church or a service with this kind of humility, cherish it.