How do we sustain faith in the long term?

Jon Kuhrt writes: In 1996 I started attending an inner city church which had been planted by the Church of England into a former pub. The congregation consisted mainly of people at a similar stage of life, and the church had a vibrancy and authenticity I really appreciated. I attended the evening services each week with expectation and excitement and my faith was enriched by the worship and teaching.

It was also a great community to be part of. Many people went to the pub after services, there were lots of socials and meals, we had a church football team and ran a community project helping vulnerable people with decorating and gardening. After my rented flat got flooded and I had to move out quickly, a couple in the church let me stay with them for over 2 months. I then bought my first flat close by and church friends enthusiastically helped me decorate.

It was a great time to be in your 20s and live in central London. It coincided with the optimism of the early New Labour years, the Brit-pop era and house prices which were far lower than today. Back then the church felt like a community mainly made up of people with broadly similar outlooks. 20 years on, much has changed. The people involved have taken different paths related to their faith and commitment to church. What was broadly similar is now much more diverse.

I was interested to find out more about the spiritual journeys of the people involved in the church at that time. As it was a relatively identifiable and contained group of people, I sent a set of questions to around 70 people about how their faith perspective had developed or changed in the 20 years since.

My motivation and purpose in doing this was because I believe there is a need for honesty about the realities of maintaining belief. We have much to gain from listening to the truth of people’s experiences.

In the end I got responses from 26 people. The responses are highly diverse and I have produced a summary where I have grouped the responses to give coherence to what people said; the summary of the responses can be found here.

As I read the responses to the questions and reflected on them, these three themes emerged most clearly:

  • How the church created community: a sense of belonging and friendship
  • How strong convictions were the foundations of this community
  • How the complexityof life has challenged people’s faith journeys since

I believe these are issues and insights which are significant for the whole Church.

1. Community: creating belonging and authentic friendships

One of the most obvious elements which people appreciated about the church was the genuine sense of community. The creativity, compassion and friendship of this church community during this period of time was something deeply cherished by the respondents, irrespective of their current beliefs. It seems significant that the size of the community meant that most people knew each other. It was also a community which gave people opportunities to serve practically and be stretched in their thinking rather than just ‘consuming’ what the church provided.

Perhaps the clearest and most enduring impact that the church has had is the deep and lasting friendships that the church helped bring about, many of which are maintained today. It is interesting that these friendships have endured between those who have maintained their faith and those who have rejected faith and/or stopped going to church.

But the responses also show the important role that friendship has had in people sustaining their faith. A major part of growing in faith was, and continues to be, through spending time with friends who are also seeking to follow Jesus.  As someone said in reply to the final question about the advice you would give your younger self: These people will be your Christian buddies; they will sustain your need for fellowship in years to come.

It is also true that for many in the years since, their inability to find a church which could provide a similar kind of community has been a key factor in their struggles to maintain their faith.

The appreciation for genuine community is an illustration of the deep thirst for connectivity and friendship in our increasingly isolating society. It shows the church’s key role in providing a space where people can meet and engage positively with each other. This role has become even more significant in a world where so much of the connectivity is virtual rather than face to face.

It is interesting that in the 20 years since, the national Church has both declined numerically in terms of numbers attending whilst at the same time, increased its community impact through running food banks, night shelters, debt centres and a host of other church-based social action initiatives. Churches continue to be some of the most significant developers of what sociologists call social capital. Theycreate both bonding social capital by providing spaces which bring people together who have a similar background, but also they create bridging social capital which connect those who are from different backgrounds.

The appreciation for the community the church provided reminded me of something theologian Lesslie Newbigin wrote in The Household of God:

It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community.

In a fragmented and individualised world, bringing people together around a shared belief and purpose is right at the heart of what the church is.

2. Conviction: the foundation of faith

In many ways it is inevitable that people appreciate ‘community’: it is one of those elements in society that is impossible not to appreciate.  Everyone wants society to have a stronger sense of community: the deeper question is: what factors lead to community being developed? This is important because ‘community’ does not appear by itself; people do not gather around a vacuum. It generally comes about as a result of a sense of conviction in individuals or institutions who inspire and motivate others to be part of what they are doing.

So it would be superficial to celebrate the sense of community and ignore the conviction which provided the foundation on which this community was built. We should recognise the vision of the Parish leadership who chose to invest in the building and released valued members to plant a new congregation. We should not show an appreciation for the fruits of community without acknowledging the roots from which it grew.

The new congregation started with just a handful of people who initially met in a house whilst the building was being prepared.  There was a strong sense of conviction about ‘making and maturing disciples of Jesus’ which drove the whole initiative. In the responses to my questions, the word ‘inspired’ was used a number of times. It is a word worth reflecting on because it shows the impact of strong Christian convictions which permeated the church.

And although the church was planted into an old pub building, it was not a slick or a highly trendy type of culture, nor was it dependent on one or two highly charismatic leaders. The Bible teaching, worship, home groups and courses run at the church (such as Gifts of Grace) were in many ways quite straightforward. They are appreciated, not because they were clever or impressive, but because they were authentic and empowering. They shared convictions in ways that developed faith in others.

This culture in the church clearly inspired many people to go deeper, to follow Jesus in a more committed way. This had all kinds of repercussions. For me, it influenced key decisions about my work and the personal decision to buy a flat close to the church. For another person, it played a significant role in him deciding to work abroad in disaster response work with Tearfund.

In response to the final question about what spiritual advice would you give your younger self, one person reversed the question and asked how would our younger selves challenge us now about the state of our commitment? I think this is a valuable challenge. Whilst there are many valid reasons to question the certainties you hold when younger, it is also easy to become complacent and lukewarm in your convictions as you get older.

It is easy to polarise between convictions and community. Community can be seen as the warm, inclusive and experiential element which everyone likes. On the other hand convictions can be viewed as rigid, exclusive and dogmatic. But actually they are inter-dependent: conviction creates strong communities and community is maintained by strong convictions. This is shown vividly in the book of Acts where the early church forges a counter-cultural community directly because of their unshakeable convictions about the resurrection of Jesus.

A side-line on grace & truth

As the title of my blog illustrates, I believe grace and truth provide a continually helpful balancing framework for Christian convictions.  In John 1, Jesus is described as being full of grace and truth and in the gospel narratives, we see Jesus continually embodying a message of both God’s affirmation and forgiveness (grace) alongside a concern for how people live and respond to his message (truth).

I started thinking about grace and truth 20 years ago when I was at the church. This is because we were faced with the challenge of how we should respond to a man called Terry who we had got to know when we helped decorate his flat though the decorating and gardening project. Terry lived a very chaotic life due to his addictions and would frequently disrupt services by shouting out and verbally abusing people in the church.

We were faced with a dilemma about how best to respond. We concluded that we should always be a place of grace for Terry, but that we also needed to tell him the truth about the unacceptability of his behaviour. In practice this meant he often had to be escorted out of the services when he kicked off but was allowed back in for coffee. This practical blend of grace and truth meant that the church maintained a relationship with him and did not allow toxic behaviour to damage the community. Sadly, Terry died a few years later due to factors linked with his addictions. But at his funeral his sister spoke about how important the church had been to him.

The practical balance of grace and truth is vital for all churches.  This is what maintains both community and conviction.

3. Complexity: struggles in sustaining faith

But of course, just as strong Christian convictions played a key role in making the church what it was, we have to be honest about the struggles that many people have had in maintaining those convictions in the years since.

There is no doubt that the main shift in the faith perspective between now and 20 years ago among the respondents is towards what they described as a more open, and less narrow, form of faith. Unsurprisingly, this shift was particularly clear in those who no longer go to church, but it was also a clear direction of travel for those who are still attending churches.

This is part of a wider trend within evangelicalism where the theology and approach of conservative churches mean they can be strong on helping people begin a journey of faith, or running children’s or youth work, but can struggle to help people maintain faith through the complexity of life. Many who have been part of these Christian cultures talk of a painful, but often liberating, ‘deconstruction’ of their faith where they have let go of many of earlier evangelical formulations.

Many of the classic elements of this deconstruction of faith are evident in the responses. Some referred to theological issues such as judgement and penal substitutionary atonement (‘Jesus’ died to appease God’s anger’). Others wrote about being more comfortable with mystery and accepting less certainty than they used to hold to. Others wrote about how the challenges of their life have changed their perspective, a number referred to a shift to accept people with LGBT sexuality and some expressed anger about the way conservative teachings exclude people they now accept.

20 years ago the church’s theological position was influenced by a conservative evangelical emphasis (e.g. the key leaders had completed the Proclamation Trust’s Cornhill Bible teaching course). It is a theological perspective that the majority of respondents signalled that they had moved away from.

I think it is undeniable that many people’s faith has not been able to be sustained in the same form as they expressed it 20 years ago. They may look back appreciatively at the period of time but elements of the teaching now seems narrow and unable to make sense of the world as it once did. So although the conviction was appreciated, it has also struggled to be sustained. What does this mean for the way churches express and teach the faith? It illustrates the need for humility which often is not the hallmark of evangelical churches. Too often, evangelical culture can be dismissive of other traditions and can present itself as the one true expression of Christian belief rather than a tradition which has strengths and weaknesses.

The widespread ‘deconstruction’ of faith is a big issue within evangelical culture, popular podcasts such as Nomad are focussed on this theme. Instead of being labelled as ‘unbiblical’, ‘backsliders’ or ‘liberals’, evangelical churches should encourage honest dialogue among their congregations about the issues which cause people to walk away from the church. Alongside humility, there needs to be more honesty.

Personally, I have found Greg Boyd’s teaching and his Re:Knew podcast helpful in navigating these issues. He is just one example of a great Bible teacher who are helping Christians maintain, renew and re-construct a faith in Jesus which can cope with complexity and challenge.

Questions in an age of Covid

Covid threatens the health and wellbeing of our communities in a way that has never been seen before. More than ever there is the need for the church to share and embody the good news of Jesus.

I believe that the themes of community, conviction and complexity are very relevant for the task facing the church. These are some questions for church congregations and Christians to consider:

  1. In a lonely world, how can we build authentic community, which helps foster deep friendships and welcomes newcomers?
  2. How can we deepen our convictions around following Jesus and offer his grace and truth as a basis for negotiating life and its challenges?
  3. How can we help people maintain faith in the midst of the complexity of the real world? Can we be more humble and honest about the grey areas and difficulties?

One respondent wrote a sentence which really struck me and caused me to reflect. It expresses something right at the heart of what church exists to do:

My main pursuit now is to really come to know and believe that God loves me. That would be truly liberating and life-changing.

More than ever the world needs a love which is liberating and life-changing. The core task of the church is to show how this pursuit can be met through faith in Jesus. In a complex world, the church is a community built on this conviction.

Jon Kuhrt was Director of Community Mission for Livability (formerly the Shaftesbury Society) from 2002 to 2010, and Chief Executive of the West London Mission from 2010 to 2018, leading their work with people affected by homelessness and addiction. He is now Rough Sleeping Adviser to the government, specialising in how faith and community groups respond to homelessness. He lives in Streatham with his wife and three children, is a member of Streatham Baptist Church and is involved each summer with Lee Abbey Youth Camp. He is an avid cricket lover. He blogs at ‘Grace + Truth’ where this research was first published.

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21 thoughts on “How do we sustain faith in the long term?”

  1. I meant to ask whether you felt there were positive aids to community liked a shared experience of being at the berginning of something new? Also, do you think size of the church is an issue in helping people feel part of the community?

    • Hi Andy, yes I think both of those factors was helpful and significant. What it meant was that a higher ratio of people generally were encouraged to participate and give of themselves and not just be ‘consumers’. Though daunting, being part of something ‘new’ was also exciting and stimulating which gave a sense of collective endeavour.

  2. When we were first married, 55 years ago (!), we joined a small Baptist church 120 miles away from our former home city. A new minister had just been appointed in his early 30s with a wife and two children. He proved to be an inspiring Biblical preacher and a warm-hearted pastor. For the next six years we saw frequent conversions, some from very unpromising backgrounds, steady numerical growth, and a church plant. And we became a church in ‘renewal’, which was sweeping the country and the world at that time. After my parents joined us, one year, for Easter worship, my father said to me, ‘Enjoy this place. You will never experience church like this again!’ How right he was!

    Thirteen years ago, when I retired from stipendiary C of E ministry, we joined a city centre church which, at the time, was in vacancy. Two years later, amid great expectation, a new Vicar was appointed with fine credentials. Within weeks, some of us began to fear we had not got what it had said on the tin. He closed everything down, including a Sunday service. He brooked no dissent, however mildly it was expressed. Any suggestions were dismissed with deep suspicion. The church administrator was forced to leave. Others left, some to other churches, some never to worship again. Last summer, after ten years, he himself went into retirement. Since then, under the leadership of the Associate Minister, even in lockdown and with physical worship suspended, we are beginning to thrive. We are all pulling together. Even in lockdown, we are starting to grow. We are enjoying a new ministry to the homeless, and to Iranian asylum seekers who are finding Christ.

    Because church growth is a work of the Holy Spirit, it is a mystery. He blows where he wills and we do not know whence he comes, or whither he goes. But, in my experience, at a human level, leadership is paramount. And in the Church of England, we are not that good, for all our talk, at growing leaders, nor of maintaining succession between leaders. If I live long enough, I shall be interested to see what will happen to HTB once Nicky Gumbel retires. And that is no criticism of his ministry and of his leadership.

    My guess is that, in his youth, Jon Kurht enjoyed one of those spring times in the church, which come along from time to time, which equipped him, and others in the group, for their ministries which were to follow. I am normally very happy to sign my name after my comments, but, this time, I think I should remain anonymous.

    • I think being anonymous is wise! Jon will need to answer for himself, but my impression is that where he is now is also still positive in terms of community and conviction…

    • Hi Anon,
      Just to be clear that I was just a member of this church and not involved in anyway with the leadership. I guess you are right that it was a ‘spring time’ for this particular church and we as a group were blessed. I certainly think you are right about the importance and significance of leadership – nothing could be more important to help any institution get the balance right of community and conviction in a complex world. thanks for reading and commenting, Jon

  3. Excellent article Jon that resonates with me strongly. You articulate in a concise way what I’ve been trying to get my head around for some while. I am often saddened to see that many of my contemporaries in the early part of my christian life, who begun from a strong evangelical base have now gone cold, ambivalent and have even abandoned the faith some 40 odd years hence. Others have just given up.

    You give a good rationale as to why.

  4. So much of the struggle to remain an orthodox Christian is to do with sex, marriage and divorce, isn’t it?
    Is it any different for Roman Catholics, who on paper at least have a stricter sexual ethic than even conservative evangelicals? How have Catholics fared in modern Britain? We may rationalise things as “my old beliefs were too narrow, judgmental, didn’t match the real world etc” ( as if these were not issues for the apostolic church in the Greco- Roman world!), but there is also the matter of trying to live as a Christian in a society which has been moving in a secular direction since the 1960s and where the watchword has been expressive individualism, focused overwhelmingly on free sexual expression as the road to human fulfilment and happiness – the subject of the recent thread about Carl Trueman’s new book. This drive is profoundly un-Christian in its direction (as well as un-Muslim), and how difficult it is to maintain an authentic Christian direction in marital and family life when the culture, expressed in state education, entertainment and the internet, is moving in an entirely different direction. Muslims have their own responses to western secular modernity, some better than others, but all involving a degree of separation and differentiation from the prevailing culture. How have evangelicals responded?
    We may say: “my beliefs were too narrow etc”. Or perhaps there is another side: “I was a casualty in the long war. I got tired of fighting. I was disappointed in how life turned out and I didn’t think my prayers were being answered.” Or conversely: “I’ve been comfortable and successful and found I didn’t really need God to get by.” Or even: “Religion is an obstacle in the world I inhabit better to leave it at the door.”
    Many years ago I met and chatted with the future MP Chris Bryant when he was still a curate. His vicar predicted great things for him but not that he would reject a (liberal catholic) faith for a secular political one. I often think of this and other examples closer to home on how faith may fare in “la longue duree”.

    • Thanks James. Your comment about Catholics having a stricter ethic ‘on paper’ made me reflect on the gap between doctrinal orthodoxy and what people actually practice. For example, I discussed birth control recently with a priest and I asked him what % of Catholics adhere to the formal teaching on birth control and he said ‘probably less than 5%’ and I said ‘Well doesn’t this make it a nonsense?’ and he replied ‘No because the truth is still the truth.’ I think it is this kind of situation that most people rightly reject.

      I think your different ‘quotes’ from evangelicals are valid. People probably do feel all of those: reflective, injured, tired , probably many have got comfortable, lazy and scared. The Parable of the Sower is of enduring relevance.

      But it makes me motivated to look at how the Christian faith can be practised and integrated in life – put to work and shown to be effective in maintaining inner meaning and outward impact in society.

    • “His vicar predicted great things for him but not that he would reject a (liberal catholic) faith for a secular political one. I often think of this and other examples closer to home on how faith may fare in “la longue duree”.”

      It strikes me more and more that this seems to be the case here in the UK as well as in the States among evangelicals (or ex-evangelicals).

      Christianity seems to be increasingly viewed as a means to, or pointing to, a “self-evident” political/current cultural “truth”. If a Christian culture clashes with that then either a) the Christian sub-culture is wrong or bad or b) the people in that Christian sub culture are misguided, wrong or not even really as Christian as “good” atheists.

      The “truth” is almost always what popular media culture preaches in tv, news, hr depts etc

      The number of evos here in the UK who pretty much “Bye Bye Rob Bell” to Bethel when they found out that their pastors voted and made social posts supporting Trump in 2016 (including high profile staff members at HTB) was only eclipsed by the re-discovery in 2020 when at least 1 (ex-HTB, ex-Soul Survivor) current senior youth-event leader and church elder suggested on twitter that anyone playing Bethel or Bethel linked songs at church or buying their albums was enabling/enriching hate and real Christians should stop “supporting” and “endorsing” them by using their worship music… ironically his friend is Vicky Beeching’s manager. Vicky’s royalties of course dropped to non-existent levels post coming out as gay as many US evo’s didn’t want to “support” her decision.

      I guess we should all “cancel” the Psalms too?

  5. Jon, I think you have really nailed it when you emphasise the importance of community. I noticed that many of my contemporaries from 40 years ago became the way they are now when they moved away from a communal environment. Like you, I was part of a thriving church community (part of the Jesus movement in the 1970’s) and I recall those days with great fondness. However as we all grew up, got married had kids and a mortgage to pay, moved because of our jobs, education etc many of us became detached from our communal roots.

    Parable of the Sower is very relevant here. I think the difficulty as you rightly point out, is sustaining a sense of community in the church. Many churches simply don’t understand what it means to be in community with one another. The concept is alien to many of them.

    In the current situation our small rural Baptist church where I am a lay pastor together with our part-time minister, we have determined to stay open in line with government social distancing guidelines. Communally this seems to have paid off as people come and even folk from other churches whose places of worship are closed, ask to come. Our minster regularly spend hours on the phone chatting to people in our congregation, checking up and making sure they are OK. He also contacts the mums who do not attend church but bring their children to our toddlers group (now closed due to the pandemic) and forms relationships with them. We have also managed to conduct a carol service (no singing) a socially distanced baptism and a funeral from someone who is not a member of our congregation but knows what we do and wanted us to conduct a service for him before he died. We seem to be the only church doing these things for miles around.

    ‘Zoom’ church simply does not have the sense of community associated with personal contact let alone many elderly folk who simply have no idea how to use modern technology and are not about to start learning now. It doesn’t work for them and they feel excluded. If people think that this is the future of the church, then I don’t think it will last very long. When the pandemic is lifted then I think for our church, we will actually see an increase in our attendance numbers.

    Unfortunately the type of church community that you describe is all too rare. Somehow ways must be found to bring it back to the forefront either in the way the training of our leaders is done or other initiatives that shift the focus of church life in this direction.

    • Those are fantastic things your pastor is doing, and not just him, I hope. When this visitation is over (ad mathai, Adonai?), people will remember those who have gone the second mile.

      I fear you are right, however, about the devastation this is reaping upon churches with largely elderly congregations. I suspect a lot of them will be pushed over the edge.

      So it’s essential for the church, as well as society at large, to make using internet communication s easy and intuitive as possible for older people. Health care professionals have already begun this switch, just as education has had to.

      A weekly zoom prayer meeting has become my centre as the only time I am seeing and talking with fellow Christians on a regular basis. But we need to be very intentional about building and maintaining community and my style is to remind people (to the point of tedium) to pray by name each day for those in their fellowship group. I think the practice has good apostolic precedence.

  6. Yes, community is important, but it’s not everything.

    At the start of the pandemic last year the church we are part of, prerecorded the service and opened its doors to view it there. At first I couldn’t see the point; why not just stay at home and watch it, where, at least, we could sing along? But we decided to make an effort and travel by car to the church building after on-line booking. Not many attend, but those who do are mostly of the older generation. Oddly, to me there is much more fellowship with those we can only nod to or “eye-ball”, than there is over any zoom meeting in small groups or prayer meetings.

    Yes, it’s not everything: personal responsibility is necessary, in devotion to God, what used to be derided in some quarters, and still is, in the exercise of spiritual disciplines, or piety, in communion with God.

    What saddened me about this article was the quotation near the end from a responder, who needed to know that God loved them. To me that is at once a reflection on a poverty of teaching which goes in deep to the very core of our being, a Spirit depth charge; not mere intellectual assent; heart and mind are to be engaged.

    I’m not sure why we should be surprised at a falling away as scripture is replete with those who start well but end badly, even within a generation. The question is why? Again, scripture answers.

    But Christ will not break a bruised reed nor snuff out a smouldering wick.

    For a book length consideration of the topic from a one who was part of two revivals Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Religious Affections”.

  7. Teaching and personal responsibility.

    At the end of one of our recent mid-week group studies on the book of Malachi, we closed with prayer requests. A common theme was for a closer walk with God.
    Afterwards I pulled together this, which may be of some benefit to some and may cause some to review their understanding of a derogatory view of reformers and puritans:

    Communion with God – a closer Walk.

    “Enjoying God -experience of the power and love of God in everyday life”is a contemporary book by Tim Chester which leans heavily Puritan John Owen’s “Communion with God” (written in 1657). And if we think Puritans were all sour-faced-lemon-suckers this book would be a mind changer as would his book, written near the end of his life. “The Glory of Christ.” Owen suffered many personal reverses in his life and lived in tumultuous times.

    Tim Chester’s book is highly commended. Owen’s abridge book in modern English is available from Banner of Truth at a modest price, for books at today’s prices.

    Chester says, “our union with God is our basis for communion with God (our enjoyment of our union with God)”.

    “However much you mess up or neglect your communion with God, you can always start again because you are always united to God in Christ.”

    Chester, tellingly, asks, “Do you like God?”

    Owen’s book is a book length expansion, of a stated, foundational principle, by Chester:
    “God is known through the three Persons, so we relate to the Father, to the Son and the Spirit” and Chester asks,
    “With which member of the Trinity- God the Father, God the Son or God the Spirit- do you have the strongest sense of a lived, experienced relationship?” and he quotes Owen;
    “The saints (believers) have distinct communion with the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (that is, distinctly with the Father and distinctly with the Son, and distinctly with the Holy Spirit.)”

    For all the eagle-eyed theologians Owen does not separate the Three persons, but is firm in the One God of Christianity.

    Chester again;
    “This means that the work of one is the work of all three- and to experience one is to experience all three. In John 14, Jesus says that an encounter with him is an encounter with God:
    – To know Jesus is to know God the Father: “If you really know me you will know my Father as well”. (v7)
    – To see Jesus is to see God the Father: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (v9)
    – To hear Jesus is to hear God the Father (v10)
    The Spirit, too, doesn’t enable us to experience the presence of some other being. He’s not a substitute for the real thing. He *is* the real thing. He *is* God and so brings us into contact with the presence of the Father and the Son.
    What this means is that we always have communion with God -not part of God. If I have communion with the Son, then I have communion with the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of the father and the Spirit of Christ. So to be in-dwelt by the Spirit is to be in-dwelt by the Son and the Father.”
    … Our union with God is unilateral or all one-sided…it’s all God’s work…so we might have communion with him and this communion is two-way.”

    Owen, wonderfully sets out the biblical reality with many scripture references; Chester grounds it in every day, ups and downs, reality. Enjoyment is not elevated to all life being hunky-dory-glory. Neither is it scuppered by pain, suffering, evil.

  8. I wonder what the 44 who didn’t bother to respond really thought of their church experience? I suspect their non-response speaks volumes.

    • I would phrase it as ‘didn’t bother’. Many of them are exceptionally busy, doing important things and I think that some of these questions are genuinely hard to answer. I would have liked to have as many responses as possible but I would guess that the answers received were fairly representative of the wider group.

  9. Hi Jon,
    Really interesting (and sad) piece. I note that the three areas you highlighted as significant are to do partly with the way the church itself operated: a strong sense of community, and strongly held shared convictions, alongside the challenge of the complexity of modern life.

    It feels to me that these all have a quality of context and externality. I noted that you don’t mention the matter of maintaining a rich devotional life and the Christian community’s responsibility to sustain and encourage believers in this as a first priority.

    Back along Willow Creek did some research that highlighted the overwhelming importance of practices of personal Bible reading and reflection as the key driver of stickability and growth. It seems to me that everything flows from the daily experience of encountering GOD in scripture.

    One of the things that has surprised me after I retired and joined a different church was the extent to which it was not assumed and taught that a “proper” prayer time is a non negotiable for Christians. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, or what tradition it comes out of. Anything from an classic quiet time to an Ignatian meditation is fine but it seems to me that it is only the daily encounter with GOD that can sustain us.

    Of course there’s much more to formation in discipleship, but the bedrock of a rich personal devotional life seems to me the key to facing the challenges of changing church contexts and a challenging environment.

    Thanks for your article

    Simon May

    • Thanks Simon. I think you have made an excellent point and one which is hugely significant. I think that teaching people how to pray and stay nourished spiritually through prayer and Bible study is absolutely critical. These are probably the ‘strategies’ most needed to sustain faith in the long term.

      Thanks for reading the piece and for your reflection.


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