It has been a busy week.
On Wednesday, I was at a conference in Birmingham on Faith in Research. It was reporting on research that has been or is being done about church life and about the statistics and data available to use in research. I went because I am on the Statistics Reference Panel – one of the last responsibilities I have within the wider church. It means I go to a meeting in London twice a year, which helps to give me a wider perspective.
There is a lot of research happening at the moment. People see that church life is changing rapidly, and they are trying to understand what is really happening, and what are the factors that make the difference between a struggling church and a thriving church. Research is important, because it helps you to see what is really happening, not what we assume is happening.
So it made me think about what it means to be a church today, in relation to God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
One guy spoke about people who had stopped going to church.
He came across some research which looked into why people had left church. And the reasons all seemed pretty trivial: types of building, styles of worship, the vicar’s sermons, even the flower rota. But if you looked more closely at the research, you would realise that this information came from people who were still in the church, reflecting on the people they knew who had left church. You just have to think about what folks say about other people who have left, and they put it down to some trivial reason or other.
The reality is somewhat different if you actually ask the people themselves about giving up church. For the most part, people left gradually after a long time of frustration and deep soul searching. A goodly proportion of those who stopped going to church altogether still had faith, and often quite deep faith. When they stopped going to church, they were able to other things, such as volunteering and having deep conversations about faith and praying with friends. In other words, for some people who stop going to church do it because it is the only way they can flourish spiritually. The researcher calls it “the Invisible Church”. This was a surprise to most of us, because we tend to assume that people who leave church have lost their faith or fallen out with God.
In this church, we are trying to be more welcoming. Another speaker at the conference pointed out that there is a difference between a church being welcoming and people feeling that they belong. And it’s the hidden things that make people feel they belong – or not. Its issues like whether the newcomer feels that there are people like them in the church that they can relate to. It’s church members who are grumbling in corners and being negative that can put people off. It’s the bullying that can happen in churches, the way power is played out. So many things can get in the way of people feeling that they belong.
I really like a comment from the Bishop of Manchester, who was chairing the conference, that he had been impressed by research that showed that people who pray build better social networks. I found that very helpful – as you know I am passionate about prayer, which is absolutely essential to the Christian life.
And then yesterday, I was at Diocesan Synod. Most of the agenda was about we develop our churches so that they can bless the communities in which we are placed. That in itself is a really important question – for us, and for every church in the diocese – how can we bless this area, the people of Bensham & Teams? But once again, it was looking at the question of what it means to be a church today, the body of Christ, and who we are in relation to our great God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
One issue is how we tell people about Jesus. There will be a big mission event in March next year, when 20 bishops and their teams will descend on Durham Diocese for 4 days and take part in loads of events that have been arranged by parishes, deaneries and schools. They can be big events or small. But they will be occasions designed not just for church members, but for the wider community, and people will be expected to bring along their friends. I have a booklet about the Mission here, and it would be good if people could read it, pray about it and have some ideas about what we might do.
We also heard about a new course called The Blessing Course, which the Diocese is developing to help people grow as disciples. We are all disciples. We are all followers of Jesus. But what does it mean to be a disciple?
As for the clergy, the Diocese is developing a mission leadership course and all parish clergy will be expected to take part.
We were reminded about how important the Deanery Plans are, which should help us work together on Mission, on how we develop our churches and how we organise ourselves. They should reflect how we plan to go forward on the priorities of growing our churches, tackling poverty, and reaching out to children and young people.
It all raises some important questions for us here.
- What it means to be church, the body of Christ, here in Bensham & Teams?
- How can we grow as a church?
- How can we foster faith for children and young people here in church?
- How can we reach out to people who are struggling because of poverty, isolation, lack of friendships and networks, lack of work and prospects?
Some of the things we already do are an important part of that, such as Fun @ 4 and the Lunch Club. But it is very easy to become a church club rather than the active, living, vibrant, praying, witnessing Body of Christ. How can we take this forward?