Testing the Waters – Reaching out to “Dones”

This is a think piece because I am reassessing.

About a decade a book came out called “A Churchless Faith” which broadly argued that those who were leaving the Church were Stage IV  in the Fowler Stages of Faith and that this made them less than docile sheep in the flock.

Now I am not convinced. Certainly I understand that there are congregations and traditions that like conformist sheep. I have two cautions. Firstly this is to overlook the role power plays in this situation. The transition between III and IV is often connected with a change in power dynamics. The desire is often to be more actively engaged in the decision-making process. Now it might be genuinely a difference of stage, or it might well  be a situation of the abuse of power. If it is abuse we are being dishonest by referring to it as a stage difference, equally if it is power struggle does the stage actually matter? The second reason is that it typecasts all congregations as a certain type associated particularly strongly with independent Evangelicals and denominations with strong hierarchical control. There are a lot of congregations out there where this is not the norm. Indeed my experience of URC was that the desired church member was someone in stage IV. That is questioning and engagement with theological ideas and such was actively encouraged.

That said I am in the process of reassessing. Firstly I have come increasingly aware of the number of members in United Reformed Church congregations who were “Dones” and are testing the water again. Secondly, I am struck with how hard many “Dones” have worked to maintain a relationship with the institutional church. Quite often people who have given up have tried several congregations before finally leaving.

There are several things that I notice:

  1. Unlike many “Nones”, “Dones” may have a fair grasp of the gospel. The idea that sending them on Alpha or another basic introduction to Christianity is they way to start them off is often a BAD Idea. It is a denial of where they are coming from.
  2. They may indeed have a wrong understanding of the gospel but that is not the same as no understanding and what one congregation considers “wrong” another might accept. Correcting ideas that people have already accepted needs to be done carefully.
  3. The  like many people who have been hurt they are pastorally and politically difficult to handle. They are likely to have sensitivities that you know nothing about. They may be cautious about saying anything at all or go to the other extreme and always have loud views. Both approaches are methods of testing the water.
  4. There is a good chance that they have some sort of involvement burn, whether that is burnout because too much has been expected of them or catching too much of the heat from a hot internal politics.
  5. You need to consider that there has at least been a breakdown in fellowship in their Christian experience. Even if it is the case that the congregation they previously belonged to has had to close and they were happy with it right to the end.

A congregation which has a lot of former “Dones” can thus be very turbulent indeed. Ever so often things will get blown out of all proportion to the intention. It maybe something as simple as singing a hymn two Sundays running.

A congregation who wants to be a place where “Dones” can edge back into membership, and I happen to think many URCs could do this, needs to think seriously about how it deals with the following:

  • Good governance and open decision-making structures –  You want to be trustworthy and seen to be trustworthy. Remember these people have been hurt in their encounters with power in the church previously. Be clear about what you expect from people with responsibility and make sure it applies to all. Work on having checks and balances.
  • A theology of restoration – partly a theology of healing, partly one of forgiveness and with something more as  there is a need to get beyond the grievances and hurts that “Dones” carry.   They have often made the first step but can you offer then something that is worth risking being hurt again for or are they better off in the safety of being done with Church
  • A big emphasis on pastoral care – as the place where restoration is worked through. I do not simply mean the building of the relationship between minister and “Done” or elder and “Done” but the care that the congregation gives each other.  How does pastoral care fit within church arguments? It is worth thinking about because the one thing I can be certain of is these arguments will arise.

Works Cited

Jamieson, Alan. A Churchless Faith: Faith journeys beyond the churches. London: SPCK, 2002. paperback.

Fowler, James W.. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1995. Paperback.

 

A gym encounter and evangelism

I started going to the gym about 20 months ago. This was after a slow realisation that Ph.D. had left me in a relatively poor state. I was obese according to my BMI although nobody commented on me being overweight.  I was also relatively unfit. I came to acknowledge that my lifestyle was largely sedentary and I needed more exercise. One of the things that had scuppered previous exercise routines was that they got disrupted by circumstances. Walking depended quite a bit on the weather and people to go with swimming was cancelled whenever there was a competition in the pool and  yoga was simply too much effort most mornings. Actually, I was intermittently doing yoga but that was really it apart from general walking with life. The ability of Ph.D. to eat time that was available and still be hungry did nothing for my routine. What I needed was something that I could fit around my life and was less likely to be cancelled. That for me meant reluctantly going to the gym. As it turns out gym suits me when it is part of a wider regime.

Now fast forward 16 months and they gym is being refurbished so changing rooms are less comfortable than usual and there is no hiding away in a cubicle. Another girl came in while I was changing for a gym session. I could see my sixteen-month-earlier-self in her and could sense she was nervous. I also suddenly realised I was one of the reasons she was nervous.  You see having been going to the gym regularly for little over a year I looked like a person who went to the gym.  I think I had only just got down to a normal BMI but I was confident in the settings and I as long as I stuck to my routine I knew what I was doing.

Having heard others talk in the gym, I would say that the same is true of most of them. There was a time when they were that new, totally unfit, klutz, trying it out for the first time. Indeed, I suspect many like me still by default think of ourselves that way. It means that the gym goers when they notice a new person (many gym goers are very much working on doing their thing) think not “look at that slob how dare they come here” but “good on you, hope you stick at it”. However, that is not how they are perceived by the new gym goer.

Now this is not an article encouraging people to take up the gym. I could write that but there are plenty out there. Rather it is an article about people who come to church. It is so easy in a church to look at other people and think they have their lives together, that they know what they are doing. This is particularly true of when looking at those who have been at the church for a long time. That is not how many of us see ourselves in the church. We see ourselves as messed up individuals who are struggling to make it up as we go along. We are often focused on our needs and getting those dealt with, just as gym goers are. We are not the super religious that others look up to. This is our perspective.

When people less familiar with the setting come in they do not know this. What they see is, like a new gym attendee, that everyone else is more proficient and able to cope than they are and that includes us. I wonder how much the accusations of “hypocrite”, so often thrown at people who attend church, is not the equivalent of “gym rat” used of those who go regularly to a gym. It comes from a person’s feeling of inadequate and is addressed to those who they as making them feel that and judging them. Whether of not they are in fact being judged is irrelevant, the perception is all.

I cannot say that I got it right, but that time I broke the changing room taboo and spoke with the girl telling her my story. I hope it encouraged her. The questions is how do we let people in the idea that we were all once the newbie with our congregations and we are not always as sure of how things work as they appear.

Overfished mission

This is a guess but I think there is at least some historical evidence behind it. The Church lives by mission. That is if it is to survive it can only do so by the act of people who are not yet its members!

Historically the church has had a fairly broad understanding of mission. Yes it ran evangelistic campaigns but these ran side by side with social groups and welfare provision. It clothed the naked as well as preached the good news. A church was a multifaceted organisation.

Then the church realised and I think around the 1950s, that certain actions brought in more members than others. So it argued that concentrating on these were efficiency. You did not need all the suprastructure of the other mission activities nor the random pastoral visiting, nor the social chit chat with friends. What you needed to do to grow was concentrate your resources on the receptive. Social outreach could be just for the sake of helping others it was not part of the churches central mission. A very good way to dishearten the volunteers.

Lets take the old Sunday Afternoon Sunday School. Well yes that was largely child minding so the parents could have sex without the kids around or go down the pub. So we concentrated on the Sunday morning Sunday School for church children which was far more productive in terms of immediate numbers. Except that now the children end up down the pub with the adults, or some other activity (e.g. junior football and rugby clubs often meet on a Sunday). So the kids instead of learning about Christianity, learn sport or go to pubs with their parents. That means they don’t gain the basic language in which the church puts the gospel. So we are talking to people now who speak another language. Children don’t know the Christian stories any more, this is a cultural and an evangelistic loss to the church.

The problem is that many of the other less effective programmes actually created the receptive demographic. The result of not cultivating them made people feel the church was “hypocritical” only interested in looking after those who were interested in it. The church was cutting what did not suit it and not necessarily what people around wanted the church to cut.

What is more the apparent success rate of some began to make the people in the churches began to feel inadequate in just doing the ordinary things that had supported people through generations. They felt no longer able to talk about their faith because they weren’t as good as Billy Graham. Not realising that unless they talked Billy Graham could not reach their friends.

Basically the church got into harvesting and forgot to plant.

To change metaphors for the last fifty years or more, we have fished in a non-replenishing pool. The stock is almost gone and we have not taken care to see it is replenished. In other words the Church has over fished.

This is bad news because the catches are meagre now, and the only way that the catches are going to improve is actually to put resources into replenishing the stock. To do that we have to take effort away from the catching and reinvest it in all the things we gave up fifty years ago. Yes that means social outreach, yes that means social activities for people around the buildings and yes that actually means putting their desires higher on our priority list. Only there are not as many people to fish and we are not as fit as we were fifty years ago.

The good news is that there is the wider sea, the bad news is our boat is less sea worthy than it was because we have not had to keep it up to standards for the last fifty years.

Who should the local congregation be evangelising?

I have heard that someone recently preached on how the church should be doing outreach to people whose alcohol addiction leads them to drink on the streets, people who are homeless and people who are sustainably addicted to drugs. Well I admit those are challenging areas to do outreach in. It is like it is a bit of a challenge to take the gospel to groups of people who no one has tried to take the gospel before. There are challenges and I fully accept its worth doing but…

… as someone who has been vaguely involved with it can I say there is one big problem, the area is over subscribed with those who want to be involved in it!  The people who around here fall into those categories go from one Christian mission to the next Christian mission and get food, clothing, worship etc from that.

The real challenge, the biggie, the one I fail at is …

To take the gospel to people who outwardly are the same as us. To cross the taboo line in society and talk about the faith with your friends. To be prepared to be ridiculed amongst those you socialise with. To be prepared to adapt church so those people who have never been to church feel welcomed and treated with respect, because they believe they won’t be. The challenge is not to bring the very different to Christ but the almost like us to Christ, who can and will ask awkward questions, may think you a religious freak and suspect you of judging them even if you don’t.