You don’t get to two billion believers without making a few enemies

It may be worth reading 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 alongside this post.

The news that General Synod had taken evangelism off the agenda this year – yet again – rather reminds me of the notorious Politico article that did the rounds after the election of Donald Trump. Confronted with deep concern on the ground about the potential for Mr Trump to pull off a surprise in key states, Mrs Clinton’s campaign preferred to stick to the strategy they had crafted from the start – and take activists away from the very states they were warning were weak spots.

“… I think it’s true that the plan was accomplished,” said a former labor leader in the state. “But the plan was not the right plan.”

Every year seems to bring a new plan for the Church of England to shore up its ailing numbers: the Thy Kingdom Come prayer drive; the Just Pray cinema ad which was unceremoniously, and predictably, dumped by distributors; countless initiatives with patchy take-up and only an occasional relevance for diminishing congregations; church plants which bloom and die without a trace, bluebells in our spiritual desert. None have worked. An 81-year-old is eight times as likely to be a churchgoer as an 18-year-old. “Terminal decline” does not quite capture the problem: we are in a tailspin. Far from expanding our numbers, it will be a miracle – in a literal sense – if we maintain them. Moreover, our potential converts know very well that we are in trouble. People can smell fear – and fear does not an appealing religion make.

In this context, the Church seems to have adopted a marketer’s view of ‘selling’ Christianity to a population which sees no real need for religion. Research indicates secular people often rather like Christians, and are glad churches exist. They may not even have an active problem with the establishment of the Church of England. Yet they are no closer to the way, the truth and the life, and a Church which cannot reach them is failing in every aspect. No marketing campaign will work on this: even a fire-and-brimstone advertising campaign warning of the eternal consequences of continued apathetic atheism is likely just to put people off, even if it does get past the Church’s significant contingent of annihilationists (among whom I count myself a reluctant member) and universalists. The general population don’t believe us when we tell them about sin, much less about Jesus, and still less about His Resurrection. They certainly won’t believe stern warnings about the fires of Hell.

The marketing approach, positive or negative, seems misguided to me. By contrast, perhaps we should look to those institutions which are successful without marketing. For instance, it does not seem wholly coincidental that social networking sites are as powerful as they are in an atomised society. Organised Christianity’s decline has been a significant part of the wider trends towards a lonelier society. Accordingly, it seems if we are to arrest the collapse – and to do so we will really need to win some converts, and fast – we ought to learn from Facebook, not from Hillary Clinton.

That doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, buying up ads or harvesting data through Cambridge Analytica. Facebook did not become one of the most powerful companies in the world through a savvy marketing campaign. That would be magical thinking: people’s brains are not simplistic electronics that can be hacked with the right combination of words and images. Facebook became one of the most powerful companies in the world because of two things:

  1. The product is well-designed for the audience to which it is aiming, i.e. everyone.
  2. Everyone else is on it (cf. Google Plus, Bebo and Myspace).

With this in mind, then, I think our best shot is as follows. First, it is critical that Christians actually go to church. The obvious problems of keeping the lights on aside, the Church needs an agglomeration effect in order to bring more people in. When people bring their friends and family to church, it must not feel like a ghost town (more like a Holy Ghost town – sorry). It is not enough for people to occasionally utter a prayer at night and sound off about how much they love Ecclesiastes on Twitter: they must go to church, every week, preferably without fail. I cannot say honestly that I am an exemplar in this, but it has become far, far too easy for Christians to write off their obligation to attend church. They cannot. It is existential. Just as ‘everyone else’ is on Facebook, ‘everyone else’ should be at church.

But, secondly, the church’s role (I use the lower case advisedly) is no less important. Church must be somewhere people feel they ought to go and don’t mind going. That is not the same as wanting to go. The people who want to go to church early on Sunday morning are a rare breed, and we should protect them (or ordain them). But most people will not want to go. It is enough, then, that church should not be an objectionable place to be. It should full to bursting with the Spirit, steeped in the traditions that tickle at the back of the secular mind and facing the world in serene knowledge that it is the living conduit to the maker and sustainer of all things.

That means well-conducted liturgy, in traditional (or, at least, formal) style; that means organ music; that means intelligent preaching, borrowed from the Church Fathers where appropriate; that means sermons that are clear, comprehensible and brief; that means the congregation properly singing the hymns; that means smooth services that start and finish at the same time every week; that means offering a newcomer a biscuit and a cup of coffee, but introducing her to the churchwarden too. It means regularity, routine, familiarity and community. It also means, as far as possible, the avoidance of the most fatal emotion anyone can feel in church: embarrassment. The Church’s obsession with gimmicks, technological and liturgical, shuts out five normal people with a normal cringe reflex for every one oddity it attracts. One should never feel embarrassed about the Gospel.

None of this can be introduced by fiat. A letter sent by the Archbishops could make influential individuals in each church sit up and listen, but the truth is that any revival in the Church is dependent upon an effort among those we already have to observe their obligations. Come. Stay. Bring a friend. Bring your children. Do what you know in your heart that you have to do. You are a member of the Body of Christ: do as He did, and keep establishing the Church, every day, every week, every month. Not just at Christmas or Easter. Strengthen your community and perhaps, one day, God willing, the bums-on-pews figures might go up year-on-year, not down.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “You don’t get to two billion believers without making a few enemies

  1. mvernon1966

    I just read Bart Ehrman’s The Triumph of Christianity, on how half the Roman empire became Christian by the end of the fourth century. My take on what he argues is that it was the, at first, steady and, then, exponential effect of more people feeling the Christian way of conveying the divine was more powerful than the old ways – by “powerful” meaning connecting with and amplifying their sense of themselves and their lives. Christianity offered more personal freedom, existential security and divine presence. It’s a different world now, but perhaps something not dissimilar obtains, which is why charismatic churches are the ones growing and sustaining the two billion. More traditional churches fall away from that, by inevitably becoming tied to the old ways, and turn to marketing and, I fear, calls for what Christians ought to do. It doesn’t work because we need spirit not letter to live. (Facebook’s power must rest on its ability to get to the inside of our lives, too, though in its case it’s an ephemeral connection, which is why it’s quite easy to imagine Facebook disappearing as rapidly as it arose.)

  2. Susan Huyton

    May I quote from your article in the Mission Area magazine for September, please?
    From ” First it is critical” to ” We should never feel embarrassed about the gospel.” Obviously, with attribution

  3. Pingback: Quick update | Partly Political

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