This is an assignment I wrote last year. Sorry if it reads more like an essay than a blog post…
When someone becomes a Christian, they will typically expect to join a church. But what will this mean for people from a non-churched background in the UK today?
In order to answer this question, it is worth giving attention to the place of voluntary organisations in the UK. If people will readily join and become involved in voluntary organisations in general, it may be expected that new converts will also readily join and become involved in a church. Conversely, if people are not in the habit of joining voluntary organisations, then it is likely that new believers will find active participation in a church to be a significant hurdle.
As I will explore below, it seems that UK culture has changed significantly in recent decades in terms of people’s attitudes towards voluntary organisations. This appears to reflect deeper changes in the culture, particularly regarding consumerism. What effect has this already had on the church’s life and mission? How should the church respond?
Examining the trend: the decline in voluntary organisations
There has been a sharp decline in social capital since the mid-twentieth century, which has been well documented. For example, as part of a wide-ranging study of trends in the USA, Putnam (2000, 185) writes,
Civic disengagement appears to be an equal opportunity affliction. The sharp, steady declines in club meetings, visits with friends, committee service, church attendance, philanthropic generosity, card games, and electoral turnout have hit virtually all sectors of American society over the last several decades and in roughly equal measure.
Davie (2006, 35) describes the trends affecting voluntary organisations in Northern Europe:
If it is true that the churches as institutions have declined markedly in the post-war period, the same process (declines in membership, financial support and so on) can be seen in almost all social activities which require people to ‘gather’ on a regular basis (political parties, trade unions, team sports etc.).
A specific example from the UK comes in the form of membership figures for the two main political parties. These have declined by an order of magnitude since the 1950s, as noted by Keen (2015):
At the end of 2013, Labour had approximately 190,000 members compared to reported Conservative Party membership of 149,800. Historically the Conservatives have had the largest individual membership base. Reported Conservative Party membership peaked at almost 3 million in the early 1950s, when Labour membership reached a peak of 1 million.
What about voluntary organisations in particular? Here there are some movements that appear to go against the tide.
Hilton, McKay, Crowson and Mouhot (2010) have challenged claims that civic participation is in decline in the UK. ‘Drawing on a number of surveys conducted by political scientists since the early 1960s,’ they conclude that ‘there is no real problem with the levels of civic participation in Britain’. They note that,
If mass political parties, the churches and women’s groups have seen declining levels of participation, new social movements, pressure groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have often seen quite spectacular growth.
However, they do concede that ‘The nature of membership and participation has changed’ and that ‘In an increasingly complex world, the public has opted to support civic groups through arms-length, “cheque-book” activism.’ This would seem to reflect an acute decline in physical involvement in voluntary organisations, even if the decline is not so apparent when measured in purely numerical and financial terms.
Similarly, Putnam (2000, 160) observes that, even in those cases where social capital seems to be growing, such as the membership of environmental organisations, this is generally the kind of participation that provides ‘neither connectedness among members nor direct engagement in civic give-and-take’, but is merely a case of giving money periodically.
The evidence described so far points to a sharp decline in involvement in voluntary organisations. People are less likely now to involve themselves in voluntary organisations, when that would involve local face-to-face engagement.
But what is driving this trend?
Explaining the trend: consumerism
A large section of Bowling Alone (Putnam, 2000) examines the causes of the decline in social capital. He attributes approximately 10% of the decline to changing pressures of time and money, another 10% to changes in mobility and urban sprawl, 25% to the effects of television and mass media, but approximately 50% to ‘generational change – the slow, steady, and ineluctable replacement of the long civic generation by their less involved children and grandchildren’ (Putnam, 2000, 283).
But what could explain such a difference between the generations? Putnam attributes this largely to World War II, which served as a strong stimulus to civic and social engagement:
In speculating about explanations for this sharp generational discontinuity, I am led to the conclusion that the dynamics of civil engagement in the last several decades have been shaped in part by social habits and values influenced in turn by the great mid-century global cataclysm (Putnam, 2000, 275).
However, it is not simply that the younger generations have lacked the impetus to social engagement: there has also been a change in how people think of themselves and the world around them.
This has been described as Western culture becoming a consumer culture. For example, Mission-shaped Church (Archbishops Council, 2004, 9) quotes Lyon (1998, 284):
Where once Westerners might have found their identity, their social togetherness and the ongoing life of their society in the area of production, these are today increasingly found through consumption. It’s not that companies are producing less, or that people no longer work. Rather the meaning of these activities has altered. We are what we buy. We relate to others who consume the same way that we do. And the overarching system of capitalism is fuelled by consumption, and geared to stimulating consumption.
This cultural shift can be seen in ‘an increasingly discernible mutation in the religious lives of Europeans – from what might be called a culture of obligation to one of consumption’ (Davie, 2006, 41).
Consumerism is closely related to two other features of contemporary society, which contribute to a reluctance to engage in voluntary organisations. The first is individualism: the person-as-consumer is focused on fulfilling his or her own personal desires. The second is postmodernity: the person-as-consumer is on a quest to create his or her own ‘narrative’ through consumption. This means that consumers will tend to be suspicious of metanarratives, which is one of the hallmarks of postmodern culture.
To summarise, the generation that had its social involvement shaped by the pressures of World War II, and that consequently had a strong sense of civic duty, is being replaced by younger generations who see their identity primarily as individual consumers. This has had a dramatic impact on the nature of involvement in voluntary organisations.
Effects of the trend: changes in the life of the church
So far I have argued that there has been a decline in involvement in voluntary organisations, and that this decline can be explained largely by a shift towards a consumer society.
Have there been changes in the life of the church over recent decades that might be explained in the same way? Do people engage with the church in the same way as they engage with other voluntary organisations: as consumers?
Davie (2006, 41-42) articulates this new attitude towards church:
I go to church (or to another religious organization) because I want to, maybe for a short period or maybe for longer, to fulfil a particular rather than a general need in my life and where I will continue my attachment as long as it provides what I want, but I have no obligation either to attend in the first place or to continue if I don’t want to.
Even the desire to belong to a church at all is weakened in the individual consumer. Wright (2006, 173) describes this, in a chapter entitled ‘Believing and belonging’ (echoing a phrase made popular by Davie):
Many people today find it difficult to grasp this sense of corporate Christian identity. We have been so soaked in the individualism of modern Western culture that we feel threatened by the idea of our primary identity being that of the family we belong to [i.e., the church].
There has been a proliferation of choice when it comes to churches. ‘At least five thousand new congregations have started in Britain since the 1980s, mostly from churches outside the historic denominations’ (Goodhew, 2015). Meanwhile, the historic churches offer a greater variety of styles of worship than was previously the case. Moreover, the increased availability of motorcars has made it easier for people to exercise ‘consumer choice’ when they decide which church to attend. This can be seen in the phenomenon of large ‘commuter churches’, where several thousand people may travel a considerable distance to get to a ‘flagship’ church.
Even the increase in attendance at cathedral worship could be explained in terms of consumerism (Davie, 2006, 43):
Looked at from the point of view of consumption, however, cathedrals are places that offer a distinctive product: traditional liturgy, top-class music and excellence in preaching, all of which take place in a historic and often very beautiful building.
Consumerism gives rise to a ‘network society’, in which people associate with the kinds of people they choose to associate with, rather than with the people they happen to live near. Mission-shaped Church (Archbishops Council, 2004, 77) describes a response by the church to this ‘network society’ in the emergence of ‘network churches’:
An Anglican network church is defined, neither by its Sunday style, nor its philosophy of ministry such as Cell or Seeker, but by whom it is for – people who live in a network environment.
As such, this is simply a more overt expression of the tendency that churches increasingly exhibit: to appeal – or reach out – to certain kinds of people and not to others.
Responding to the trend: implications for mission
In terms of mission, how should the church respond to these changing ways in which people relate to voluntary organisations?
The 1988 Lambeth Conference articulated ‘Five Marks of Mission’. I will consider the implications of this trend for the first two ‘marks’ in turn.
1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
Mission-shaped Church (Archbishops Council, 2004, 11) is clear about the challenge the church faces:
The Church of England bases a significant part of its identity on its physical presence in every community, and on a ‘come to us’ strategy. But as community becomes more complex, mere geographical presence is no longer a guarantee that we can connect.
In a culture in which people do not readily become involved with voluntary organisations, and in which consumer choice is paramount, we cannot expect that people will simply come to our churches without us making any effort. We need to make an effort to go out and meet people where they are.
First, we need to meet non-Christians where they are, and seek to share something of the gospel with them. We see an example of Paul doing this in Athens:
So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there (Acts 17.17, all Scripture quotations from the NRSV).
These initial contacts can be made through the networks that people are involved in, as well as through neighbourhood and family connections.
The best context for these people to learn about Christianity is not necessarily through attending church services. It might be more appropriate through seeker courses, such as Alpha, Pilgrim and Christianity Explored, which could easily be network-based.
2. To teach, baptize and nurture new believers
Once people have come to faith, perhaps through a network-based course for seekers, how should they then be nurtured, bearing in mind the ways in which people tend to relate to voluntary organisations today?
One answer is that they should be nurtured in network churches: churches that exist for particular networks of people. This will lead to many ‘fresh expressions’ of church, as the gospel is expressed within ‘the variety of diverse cultures and networks that are part of contemporary life’. These new types of church ‘reflect our Anglican instinct to be “how” and “where” people are, not simply to wait for them to come to us, and the missionary principle of seeking to inculturate the gospel, rather than imposing a single culture or style on the variety of cultures within our society’ (Archbishops Council, 2004, 80).
However, this notion of having different kinds of churches for different networks of people is hard to reconcile with the New Testament.
The early church consisted of people from two vastly different ‘networks’: Jews and Gentiles. Peter, speaking to Cornelius, said, ‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile’ (Acts 10.28). If there was ever a suitable cultural context for establishing ‘network churches’, it was this. But that was not God’s intention.
Paul, as a Jew, addressed some Gentiles as follows: ‘But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us’ (Eph. 2.13-14). It was Christ’s intention that his church should be the place in which Jew and Gentile are reconciled.
This is so central that Paul describes the practice of Jewish and Gentile Christians eating separately as ‘not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel’ (Gal. 2.14). This is because ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3.28).
Clavier (2013, 72) offers a critique of Mission-shaped Church. He writes that ‘if “fresh expression of church” were renamed “fresh expressions of evangelism” there would be much to say for it’. He says that ‘the authors assume that worship is a tool for attracting people to become members of God’s kingdom’. Instead, the church’s mission should be one of ‘evangelizing people to worship rather than by worship’.
So if churches should strive include people from a wide range of backgrounds, what should they do to make it easier for new believers?
First, there may well be practices that ought to be changed. If the way we do church has been shaped more by a previous age than by the gospel, we should not be afraid to make radical changes in order for the gospel to be inculturated in a more appropriate way.
Next, we need to help new believers to grow in their faith, including in their sense of belonging to the church. Smith (2009) argues that, as embodied creatures, we are shaped largely by our actions, and not just by our minds. As such, embodied liturgical practices (whether those of the church or of the shopping mall) can have a deeply formative effect:
The liturgy is a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God (Smith, 2009, 33).
This suggests that a recovery of the liturgical traditions of Christian worship could provide a way to nurture new believers from a consumerist background into mature Christian disciples.
We live in a culture that relates very differently to voluntary organisations compared with the 1950s. People are much more reluctant to join voluntary organisations, when that involves gathering with others. This presents significant challenges to Christian mission.
I have argued that we shouldn’t make radical changes to the nature of church. It may be appropriate to change the cultural expressions of church, but each church should continue to be a local gathering of people from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible. Church should be a sign that Christ has broken down the dividing walls of hostility and is creating ‘in himself one new humanity’ (Eph. 2.15).
Instead, effort needs to be made in terms of evangelism: in order to engage with people outside of the context of church services; and in terms of nurture: in order to disciple new believers, so that we can together grow from being consumers into mature Christian believers.
Archbishops Council (2004). Mission-shaped Church. London: Church House Publishing.
Clavier, M. (2013). Rescuing the Church from Consumerism. London: SPCK.
Davie, G. (2006). From obligation to consumption: Understanding the patterns of religion in Northern Europe. In S.J.L. Croft (Ed.), The future of the parish system: Shaping the Church of England for the twenty-first century (pp. 33-45). London: Church House Publishing.
Goodhew, D. (2015). Secularisation from above, Resacralisation from below. Retrieved April 12, 2015, from here.
Hilton, M., McKay, J., Crowson, N., and Mouhot J.-F. (2010). ‘The Big Society’: civic participation and the state in modern Britain. Retrieved March 15, 2015, from here.
Keen, R. (2015). Membership of UK political parties, Standard Note SN/SG/5125. London: House of Commons Library. Retrieved March 15, 2015, from here.
Lyon, D. (1998). Memory and the Millennium. In T. Bradshaw (Ed.), Grace and Truth in the Secular Age (pp. 279-294). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition.
Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Smith, J.K.A. (2009). Desiring the Kingdom: worship, worldview, and cultural formation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Wright, N.T. (2006). Simply Christian. London: SPCK.