This is a piece I wrote in December 2012 - There is a longer version you can download here
The dictionary definition of the Greek word ekklesia (which we translate as "church", the French as eglise, the Welsh as Eglwys ) is a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly .
I take it for granted as someone formed by Methodism that as Mr. Wesley, said "there is no such thing as a solitary Christian". Christian life is life in community, in the fellowship of the Spirit we call the church. Thus it is inevitable that the church will have some form of institutional existence and life, even on the minimalist definition of an institution as "some people and some rules"
However, many people think the institutional church in the 21st Century is in the process of disintegrating this article is an attempt to explore whether it is possible to reassemble the church in contemporary urban society. If it can be, or rather if by the Spirit the church is being, reassembled what shape is it likely to take.
It seems obvious to me that the institutions of church will have no choice but to change if we want to see
a credible visible church with something like an intellectually coherent Christian world view that can hold up its head with integrity in the public sphere
a missional church that increases in numbers, becomes sustainable and influential in all sectors of public life
a strong Christian contribution to the formation of a more just, equal, compassionate connected social order..
The Church Disintegrating?
What then of the state of the church in Britain today? There is little doubt about the numerical decline in church attendance among the major denominations over the last half century, the loss of the monopoly position of Christianity or from the 2011 Census data of the increasing numbers of people who claim to be of "no religion, especially among younger people. Current controversies over female bishops and gay marriage and the poor PR and news management of the major denominations have hardly helped. The public image is of a church in crisis, divided and not very relevant to contemporary society and of church leaders who lack conviction and credibility.
We continue in a long Christian tradition of defining the "other" by boundary maintenance processes. Historical examples include the polarisation between fundamentalism and the modernist "social gospel" in the 20th Century which continues to be replayed in the church today. In the evangelical churches there are not always gracious disagreements which turn into tribal battles between neo Calvinists and charismatics , between conservatives (Piper) and open or "emergent" theologians (Rob Bell, Brian Mclaren). But in the mainstream denominations conflict has focussed on issues of gender and sexuality and Giles Fraser may be correct that polite disagreement in public debate, papers over bitter tribal animosity between factions in the church. None of this is good public relations in a media saturated age, or helpful to mission in the name of one who prayed that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17;21).
Yet despite the overall trends there are signs that in certain sectors congrgations are persisting, thriving and even growing. Some case studies are collected in Goodhew 2012. It is clear for example that ethnic diversity has led to church growth especially in inner London, in the Church of England and the Roman Catholic church as well as among evangelicals an Pentecostals. Across the country it can be argued that the main denominations are in crisis while the evangelical/charismatic is now the mainstream for congregational life. There is evidently a resonance for current generations raised in an ethos of cultural consumption and individual choice various genres of popular Christian music, person centred spirituality, ministry that addresses immediate felt needs, and in some cases promises of material as well as spiritual blessing at relatively small cost. Non-Christian spiritualities and therapies also compete in this market as do other Christian traditions. There are numerous strong and growing reformed biblical churches and lively Anglo-Catholic exceptions especially in Cathedrals who offer aesthetically beautiful worship, without perhaps a radical call to conversion and discipleship. Yet even this apparent success if based on individualism and consumer choice can be seen as a force for fragmentation of church as instituion.
However, it does seem that the further one moves from core to periphery, the less well the market is saturated with attractive options. As a participant observer in church life in semi urban Lancashire one is struck by the conservative traditionalism of the main-stream denominations, the widespread acceptance of the narrative of inevitable church decline, the increasingly geriatric composition of congregations and the improbability of a financial or institutional sustainability. In my own city of Preston for example, in the last few years numerous congregations and their associated church buildings have closed of all the major traditions, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist and URC. In other cases parishes have been merged or clergy posts withdrawn. Furthermore several of the new independent charismatic and evangelical fellowships have emerged, flourished for a season then declined or fragmented and disappeared.
One factor remains hardly changed over the last hundred years. In urban and semi urban settings in the UK white working (and non-working) class adults, especially men, remain grossly unrepresented in church congregations. Traditionally it was assumed they would be found in the pub rather than the chapel or church, but as local pubs close almost more frequently than churches this is no longer the case. Concern about this emerged as early as 1957 in Wickham's Church and People in an Industrial City, Lutterworth Press, London and in the emergence of industrial mission. Built as a City (Sheppard 1975) developed this analysis but in general the concerns and methods of the David Sheppard generation of urban evangelicals consolidated into the approach of Unlock have either been found wanting, or more likely not properly tried and applied, with the result that most social housing estates are regarded as Unreached (Chester 2012) and possibly unreachable for the gospel.
The Church Reassembling
What then are the prospects for reassembling the urban church in the ecclesiastical and social context in contemporary cities?
First of all we need to be aware that despite the weakness of Christian institutions in the urban setting there is still a residual presence and power base of the established institutionalised churches. There are church buildings, ministers, and faithful congregations, undertaking locally rooted mission activities and linking with other local community institutions such as schools, residents associations and youth clubs. The importance of this infrastructure should not be ignored.
Alongside this, here and there new shoots of Christian life are emerging. Statistics have started to capture evidence about the movement known as Fresh Expressions. At least a couple of thousand have been documented in the main-stream denominations . They include simple family friendly approaches such as Messy Church to movements inspired by ancient tradition such as new monasticism, and some that have emerged or thrived in inner city settings. Perhaps most interesting for discipleship and mission in deprived urban areas are the intentional missional communities that seek to become incarnate in local neighbourhoods, working where possible alongside existing churches, or perhaps planting completely new congregations. Described by some as "submerging church" the best know examples are the Eden Network, the Baptist Urban Expression movement and the Reaching the Unreached network, although there are more established religious orders in the catholic tradition who have renewed examples of such missional presence. Whether these movements will succeed in bringing urban people to faith in Jesus and gathering them together in new local congregations on a large scale remains to be seen.
Maybe we need to look beyond the congregational unit for signs of hope.
Various comentators such as Chris Baker and Justin Beaumont have observed a new broader ecumenism which has been encapsulated in the notion of "post-secular rapprochement", emphasizing broad coalitions of diverse actors striving for social justice irrespective of social identity, value, and emotional or affective disposition. In my own experience here are many contemporary examples of such new or changing institutional forms of urban Christian activity which represntr a reassembling of the church. Here we will mention only three.
Firstly there are new signs of a growing acceptance of pluralism in the church, and a willingness to work together across denominational and theological boundaries for the sake of the Kingdom of God . At the national level Hope 08 now established for the long term as Hope Together has drawn Christians together to work on mission activities in local communities. In many towns and cities there is a renewed fresh form of ecumenism that gives the wider church a voice and influence in the public sphere as well as opportunities to pray, worship and serve together. The Gather movement and conference in February 2012 brought many of these together and has documented them on the web. In Preston I myself have been involved in one such network and written about it as it flourished in a remarkable way during the recent Guild year. These movements are not without their own problems from time to time, as certain sections of the church remain apart from them, and there are dilemmas about their relationship with multi-faith and interfaith movements, which in an age where equalities legislation is in place will be favoured as a mechanism of public policy.
Secondly community organizing on the Alinsky model is a significant phenomenon bringing congregations, other faith and community organisations together for political action in a number of British Cities. The most developed London Citizens has been well known for its successful campaigning for a living wage, The model through Citizens UK seeks to replicate itself in other urban areas with little evidence to date of sustainability. In many ways it can be seen as an attempt to reassemble the church, and the major denominations have played a significant role in the start up process. However, the movement appears mainly pragmatic and political, and while there are clear value positions that resonate with those of Christian faith, it is not so clear that it is underpinned by serious theology or by a depth of spirituality and prayer.
Thirdly the current context is one where the church, with evangelicalism in the forefront is developing widespread programmes of charitable social action. Since the first Lausanne conference in 1974 evangelicals have rediscovered the concept of holistic mission and the social activist tradition that was a key factor of Methodist and subsequent revivalism. Organisations offering franchise operations to churches wishing to serve their communities have flourished. The most well known are the Trussell Trust with its food banks, Christians Against Poverty with its money management courses and debt counselling, Redeeming Our Communities with its Youth Cafe projects and Street Pastors with its late night teams patrolling city centres and UPA neighbourhoods. All of these have an evangelical ethos and would say they are not ashamed of the gospel, but operate on the principle that actions often speak louder than words. In many places they assemble teams drawn from a wide range of congregations and denominations. For example in recent commissioning service for Street Pastors in Preston over 65 trained volunteers drawn from over 30 churches came together to worship in the context of a city centre night club. The Church Urban Fund has developed a strategy to develop ecumenical co-operation in tackling poverty together at the diocesan level. In several areas formal partnerships in the first place between Anglicans and Methodists have been established as Joint Ventures but offering a "generous table" for the widest range of churches, In Birmingham this has led to a weekly rota of churches providing a night shelter for the homeless, in Preston a food bank delivered by the Salvation Army is supported by donations from most of the churches, and from community and faith groups including local mosques.
The context of austerity and welfare reform means the need for such collaborative mission is likely to increase and that social action projects will largely need to operate without grant funding support from the national and local state. But they will be a locus for a reassembling of the urban church, with a renewal of its ancient function as an important provider of welfare and solidarity with the poor. Congregations will no doubt continue to have a life and a role as centres for the ministry of word and sacrament, for the weekly rituals of worship and liturgy. Small groups (usually linked with a congregation) will remain as a focus for bonding, study and prayer. However, with the growth of on line communication, for a generation of Christians where Facebook and Twitter are taken for granted my hunch is that in a reassembled chuch, developing an urban ecclesiology for the 21st Century it will be thin networks of special interest groups, ad hoc coalitions for social justice and intentional incarnational missional communities that will have the most significant role. Inevitably this leaves a question as to the future of denominations, synods, deaneries, circuits and regional associations of congregations the instituional forms of church from the 19th and 20th Centuries. Can they be flexible enough to embrace the emerging forms and allow the new to flourish, or do we need to see entirely new wineskins to contain the new wine that is being trodden out today?