Smug and weird — no wonder it’s a turn-off

by
31 July 2015

Congregations need to welcome newcomers with a sensitivity to their questions and doubts, says Christopher Whitby

WHEN, as a churchwarden of a small village church, I am faced with initiatives and materials for mission (Church Growth, 3 July), the question that keeps twisting over in my mind is how much belief in God, Christ, and/or the Christian message actually puts people off. While we are on good social terms with other villagers, our congregational activity can seem foreign to those without experience of it.

It is a question that is partly addressed whenever congregations are asked whether their church is welcoming. The obvious solution is to make sure that any new faces are warmly greeted and treated with courtesy. Yet I remember my own experience in my late twenties. Having given up churchgoing once I left home, one Sunday I quietly slipped into an evensong, and hid at the back.

That was fine, but I did not manage to avoid the vicar on my exit. My newness was recognised, some friendly questions were asked about who I was, and an invitation was given to return. I did not. I wanted invisibility. The issues were between me and God, if he existed, at a personal level. I was not ready to join a flock in any manner whatsoever.

The assumption that typical welcoming behaviour fits all sizes is wrong. It suits some but not others. I suspect that Christ might have suggested that fly fishing, with the quiet, long, drawn-out play, is as important as cheerily gathering into the net.

The late Terry Pratchett summed up my reservations when he wrote: “The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it.”

Some people with doubt may seek assurance from those who waver little or not at all; many would perhaps prefer to meet other doubters. The unsure newcomer may find more to engage with in the crumbling mortar than the solid bricks of faith.

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MY SUSPICION is that the newcomer who has already built some faith will quite easily let that be known. The newcomer who has not done so already will be more reticent. In both cases, I think that one of the best types of person to engage with a newcomer is one who is not among the most convinced. Both may then learn from the experience.

Congregations are composed of many varieties of belief. I sometimes look along the communion rail and think that there are probably not two of us who think that exactly the same thing is happening. We pick and mix in our religion, and it is no good saying that we should not.

We must decide where in our faith sits, for instance, the God who commands Saul to destroy the Am-alekites, “both man and woman, infant and suckling” (1 Samuel 15.3). Comparisons to the God espoused by ISIS seem appropriate, and no theory of “gradual revelation” in the Bible will soften the distaste.

Non-churchgoers might like to hear of our difficulties with religion, more than our satisfaction. It could make us seem more welcoming and less “other”.

 

THE fundamentals, as given by Jesus in Matthew 22.36-9, remain unimpeachable, we might think — except that, for non-churchgoers, to “Love the Lord your God” is a stumbling-block in a way that to “Love your neighbour as yourself” is not.

For many (without getting Platonic about it), it is perhaps not too hard to love the idea of God — and of prayer, too. More might like to believe in God than do.

It is a truth elaborated on by the American science-fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, who has a character in one of his satirical novels create “The Church of God The Utterly Indifferent”. It has the largest following of any church, precisely because it is not the existence of God that is necessarily most disputed, but the existence of a God who cares and acts. On the obvious evidence, an indifferent God can seem as viable a belief as none at all.

 

THIS is where church services can exclude people. I do not think it is the language or style, whether BCP or modern, or the time of day that are at the root of non-attendance. Our own tinkering with these has certainly produced no new people attending.

Often it is the element of praise that puts people off. “What exactly”, the non-churchgoer asks, “am I giving praise for? All the suffering I read about in my newspaper and see on television? To tell me that God moves in a mysterious way doesn’t cut it.”

A church service that was more accommodating to that view, perhaps with more emphasis on personal prayer and spiritual awareness (but still this side of yoga), might be an interesting experiment.

As it stands, our 150-seat medieval church, with a usual congregation of between six and 14, is still not sustainable in the long term. This is despite the fact that, as a proportion of the residential population, this 2.9-6.8 per cent is better than the national average.

Filling the church is easy for the carol service (135 last year, not including the orchestra), and our concerts every two months in the summer bring in an average of some 60 people, although many are from outside the parish. Enlarging the regular congregation is the difficulty for us, as for most churches.

Perhaps something might be made of the concept of the church as a lifeboat. Most people do not wish to travel in a lifeboat on their shipboard journey. But they do like to be assured that the lifeboat is there, in case of need. There is much goodwill in our village towards supporting the church in ways other than attending services.

But the lifeboat needs crew members who know how to operate it. Our crew is diminishing gradually. Faith does not need the building, but the building needs faith. And yet, to welcome new crew, we must be careful not to make it seem that we are a different species.

 

Dr Christopher Whitby is a churchwarden in Leicestershire.

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