The Invisible Church: Learning from the experience of churchless Christians
St Andrew Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
STEVE AISTHORPE is a Church of Scotland minister who has worked with congregations across the Highlands. Returning to Scotland after ten years in Nepal, he became painfully aware that many people whom he had previously known as faithful members of local church communities were simply no longer there.
He began to explore what was happening, and found, to his relief, that “the haemorrhaging of church-goers does not equate to the corresponding decline of Christianity. . . Christian fellowship is being manifested in fresh ways.”
This is, therefore, an encouraging book. It affirms those who have abandoned congregations to practise a “churchless but none the less genuine Christian faith”. It describes in uncomfortable detail the shortcomings of the local church community — the lack of love, the culture that is “impervious to change, or inept in its implementation”. It offers the hope that those who leave take with them a living faith that they continue to hold and practise. All is not lost.
He describes how such people practise their churchless faith, some finding that the very act of leaving a congregation is an enrichment of their Christian lives. They make new contacts, and seek new experiences. Doubtless, they are to be found among the kind of churchless people with whom I have walked on pilgrimages, who go on retreat, and who are part of the growing congregations in cathedrals.
And yet I find myself at least partly unconvinced by the suggestion that those who leave local congregations can retain and develop a living faith.
Steve Aisthorpe refers to Lesslie Newbigin’s view that the local congregation is the “primary reality” in terms of Christian influence in society. All of us who have lived in the world of the church know that the local congregation can crush the spirit, even though every congregation has its saints.
The failings of the local church are manifest. But I wonder what this research calls us to do in terms of reshaping its life and leadership. (There is no mention of those who leave precisely because that reshaping is taking place.) In the end, I feel that this helpful book calls us to make connections. Traditionally defined church membership is no more. We need new and flexible patterns — new ways of drawing into our fellowship those who seek a faith with more spirituality and less institution.
The Most Revd David Chillingworth is the Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane, and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church