At the beginning of August, Jude Smith (who is team rector of Moor Allerton and Shadwell in North Leeds) wrote an intriguing and slightly pessimistic article on the challenges facing the idea of the gathered church meeting on a Sunday morning, and I have been pondering it over the last few weeks.
The context was the headlines about the financial challenges being faced by her diocese—but her observation was that there are deeper challenges we all face which are not to do with financial, but to do with the personal and social pressures that discourage regular, disciplined meeting together for worship (however we understand that). She sees the challenge in five main areas:
The end of early retirement will mean fewer energetic volunteers with time to give to run things.
Commitment to grandparenting, as families are increasing dual-occupation and dual-income because of financial pressures.
Childolatry, where children are given what they want, and need to add skills to their CV to compete for places at university and in work.
Shifts and gigs which means that work patterns for those in employment are more irregular.
The death of practical skills means that we will need to call in the professionals.
I was struck by the article, since these are already measurable factors which have a visible impact on church attendance—but I don’t see many people actually engaging explicitly with these issues. And there is much to be said about them, both theologically and practically.
My most theological observation is that all of these are connected with a (mostly unnamed) ideology which has gripped our culture, one that I think is deeply inimical to the gospel. George Monbiot helpfully sheds light on it:
Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
And if physical small group meetings are important, what are we doing with our strategies for online engagement? Alongside two kinds of small group meeting structure, where I am (at St Nic’s, Nottingham) we also ensure that the sermons are recorded and put online, so that those who are not physically there can still benefit from the preaching. It is the digital equivalent of delivering cassette tape recordings to the housebound (anyone remember doing that?). But I wonder what we should be doing to offer a more complete digital opportunity for support, discussion and reflection? There is a lot of theological discussion that goes on online—but how much intentional time and energy is invested in this by church leaders (lay and ordained)? If Jude Smith is right about the fragmentation of physical attendance, perhaps we should see this as a routine part of our pastoral ministry, rather than something extra and optional or the province of specialists.
For those unwilling to commit to regular Sunday gathering, we need to teach that it is part of commitment to Christ. But for those unable to attend regularly, we surely need to make provision for them to be fed, built up and encouraged in faith in other ways.