Whatever your view of evangelicals, most people agree that the evangelical movement is of key significance for the future of the church in England and the Church of England in particular. But what is surprising (and often revealed in conversations on this blog) is the poor level of understanding of evangelicals by others—and even at times the poor understanding of evangelicals by themselves. This makes Anna Strhan’s recent book Aliens & Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals especially important. Early reviewers commented: ‘This is a fantastic book…If you read only one book about evangelicalism, make it this one.’ Here Dr Pete Sanlon, vicar of St. Mark’s, Tunbridge Wells, offers an extended review of Strhan’s analysis.
Christians in general, and we evangelicals in particular, tend to not know ourselves very well. We rarely are aware that the reasons we do things as we do might be multi-faceted, with cultural, social, learned, sub-conscious or tradition-shaped influences. We sometimes are unaware how our values, lives and passions look to outsiders. We are too easily impressed by conclusions about ‘religion’ based upon crude Enlightenment massaging of statistics. See any recent newspaper article about the decline of religion!
And so this volume from Anna Strhan comes as a breath of fresh air. In my opinion this is a seminal volume of research on the nature of British evangelicalism in general and conservative evangelicalism in particular. David Bebbington’s summary of evangelicalism had a totalising explanatory power that makes it difficult to ignore or disprove. But it lacked the granular detail which is here provided. As the author states, she offers ‘a more nuanced portrait than the standard stereotypes of conservative evangelicals…drawing out how features of their critiques of an uncertainties about aspects of late modernity…resonate with concerns expressed by liberals’ (p 5).
Aliens and Strangers is the result of the author spending one and a half years as a committed member of a large well-known conservative evangelical anglican church in London. She attended services, joined a small group, went on weekends away, interviewed members and staff, and visited congregation members at work and home. Her sociological research was conducted with the permission of the rector, and people quoted in the book gave permission for their views and observations to be used. In order to protect people and facilitate honesty the church and all persons quoted are given pseudonyms—the church is known as ‘St. Johns’. In the spirit of the research it would be kind if we refrain from naming the church or individuals on social media!
Dr. Strhan explains in the introduction that she had an evangelical background but now describes herself as somebody who has been shaped by the liberal education she has undergone, but is aware of how that also includes bias that categorises groups such as conservative evangelicals as ‘other’ (pp 25–26). Strhan is well aware of the best practice models of sociological research that take due account of reflexivity (to use the jargon) and bias. Her immersion in the culture of her chosen church and precise observations testify to her clear-sightedness as a researcher. Many of the interviewees in the book point out that they feel their conservative evangelical faith is ridiculed and misunderstood in the media and culture at large. Most study of evangelicalism occurs in the USA rather than England, and hardly any of what has been done in the UK goes beyond statistical to the sociological—all of which makes this a valuable study. What then does Dr. Strhan learn about the British conservative evangelical?
The book opens with a chapter analysing the significance of cities for evangelicalism—since the church to be studied is in London. Leaders such as Tim Keller and Tim Chester are noted as those who encourage focus on cities (p 95). Strhan correctly observes: ‘In contemporary British evangelicalism, cities are imagined as both sites of disorder and as presenting opportunities for the spread of faith’ (p 33). With half of humanity living in cities, projected to rise to two-thirds within 50 years, a study of the dynamic of Christian faith in a leading Western city is relevant to all of us. This is a study on ‘urban religious piety…in a pluralist environment’ (p 204) that is essential reading for those concerned with the future of faith in cities.
There follows chapters covering the areas of gender and embodiment (Chapter 2), Speaking (Chapter 3), Listening (Chapter 4), Living life in a way that engages with God (Chapter 5) and the need to await a future city for ultimate fulfilment (Chapter 6). Each of these chapters includes extensive interviews, observations and reflections. This is set in the context of academic literature from the school of Foucault, Weber, Postman, Berger, Simmel and Merlou-Ponty. This engagement with the academic literature is done deftly but will be of more interest to the academics of sociology than the average minister seeking to better understand the nature of evangelicalism and city based faith. Even for those not interested in the finer points of continental philosophy there are valuable lessons in Strhan’s observations.
She shows that the perception of conservative Anglican evangelicalism in the media and wider church misjudges its subject when it focuses upon the political issues around homosexuality and other contentious issues. The political engagement, such that it is, is very much second fiddle to the passion the leaders she interviews display for helping ordinary Christians get to know God better in a local church context. Passion for the local church as the centre of God’s activity on earth comes through again and again in interviews. This is contrasted with the media image outlined in the book.
The focus on individuals is shown in the detailed studies of people who were willing to be interviewed. One of these is given the name ‘Clara.’ She ‘seems to embody the ideal of the evangelical subject promoted’ at the church. She organises a work-place Christian group, is a member of the Christian Lawyers’ Fellowship, goes to several services on a Sunday and helps lead ministry ventures. The difficulty Clara faces in witnessing to colleagues at work is one that is all too familiar in the secular city.
While she would tell the woman she shares an office with that she is off to a Bible study in her lunch hour, she would not tell the partners on her team…Members of the team she works with are all aware she is a Christian, but after six years there, she has not had the opportunity to share the gospel with them’ (p 95).
The gap between ideal expectations and reality of being a Christian are keenly felt. One of the other interviewees, named ‘Simon’ observes in a memorable phrase, ‘London to me is not what it is to many people’ (p 99). Strhan does an excellent job of showing how this creates a tension within the life of a conservative evangelical working in London. There are expectations of the earthly city—and desires to serve the heavenly city. Helping Christians such as Clara with these pressures—through friendship, support, training and teaching—are all much more important and more revealing of conservative evangelical identity than the press image of focus on political issues. The description Strhan gives us is of people struggling to evangelise in a secular city and finding it really very difficult; one cannot help but feel admiration for the quiet heroism of faith that is lived out in surprising corners of the city. As more and more people become urbanised, we would do well to reflect how we can better help them manage the tensions and inner conflicts exposed in this study.
The fourth chapter of the book focuses on evangelicals hearing God speak to them through the Bible. The pages given to describing a service (p 109–113) at the London church are illuminating—rarely do we read careful observations that reveal so much about a church’s priorities and theological concerns. The words of a sermon:
…articulate an understanding of God as speaking and a sense that relating to Him in a right moral order involves listening to and submitting to the authority of His Word. People are called to respond to HIs address in obedience and develop a sense of dependence on Him and trust in His promises of a future city of God, which is partially realised in the actions of His people on earth as they seek not to withdraw from the world but to live in it as agents of change. But we also see an acknowledgement that this is a struggle, that they need help to focus their present frankly often wobbly discipleship (p 112).
Again we see the theme running through Strhan’s research—that the conservative evangelical faces a struggle to satisfactorily live out his or her convictions when the earthly city makes so many seemingly contradictory demands for loyalty, time and affection. God’s Word strengthens, equips, grows and challenges, and through church services, small groups and personal reading people help each other to make the best response possible. The call to prioritise and build a church around listening to God’s Word is very counter-cultural. One interviewee is noted as arguing that
tuning the senses towards attentive listening is felt as counter-cultural within an age of fast-paced exchanges of communication and it needs cultivation (p.129).
Given that Conservative Evangelicals are portrayed in the media as overly intellectual or unconcerned for people, the portraits in this book of patient and quiet love for not only each other but also those living in difficult inner city settings is heart-warming. The uniting of loving actions with careful listening to scripture is observed at length.
Despite their discursive emphasis that it is words that matter, members of St. John’s are conscious that embodied forms of co-presence, through which they learn to focus on words, are what encourage them to keep clinging to their beliefs. It is only together, conscious not only of their dependence on God but on each other, that they can become disciples (p 195).
Strhan’s final reflections on her time turn to the theme of tragedy. She notes that many people attending the church look to the world as if they are extremely successful and well rewarded for their labours in the financial district. However, she observes a ‘sense of disappointment in the conditions of late capitalist modernity – as well as in wider tragedies of the human condition’ (p 205). Living out the conservative evangelical faith in a pluralist secular city is tough. The interviewees
are formed through the complex intersection of a sense of relationship with God and each other, their being addressed by traditionalist moral teachings, including those on gender, sexuality, and other religions in tension with secular modernity (p 203–4).
In the midst of this apparently tragic struggle to live out faith in the city, Strhan observes at length the evidence that many of the congregation in this church articulate a longing and eagerness for the future New Creation. Through songs, prayers, discussions, Bible readings and weekends away a sustained emphasis in the teaching programme is elucidated as urging people to look for ultimate joy and satisfaction not in this life but in the future New Creation when believers will see their Lord and Saviour.
Church members described this focus on God’s promises for the future as central to their faith; for example an economist who told me that since Abraham onwards, we’ve been looking forwards (p 178).
As a minister myself, I have to say that the idea of a congregation of people working in the heart of a secular city such as London, seeking with considerable effort to set their hearts on a future heavenly city, is remarkably encouraging. Conservative Evangelicals make up a small proportion of the Church of England. Given the often noted decline in church attendance, evangelism, commitment and giving in the wider denomination, perhaps people ought to ask Conservative Evangelical churches such as this one to show how we can help a congregation base commitment and evangelism not on this life, but on hope of the future life?
Revd Dr Pete Sanlon is vicar of St. Mark’s, Tunbridge Wells. He has published books such as Simply God (IVP) and Augustine’s Theology of Preaching (Fortress). He enjoys the creative chaos of normal parish life.