WHY are urban churches numerically so small?
There are, of course, exceptions to disprove the rule, but, generally, the more deprived the area served by a church, the smaller the size of the Sunday congregation. In estates parishes, for example, regular Sunday attendance in 2016 was less than 0.9 per cent of the population, compared with a national figure of 1.7 per cent. And those urban parishes that do have larger congregations tend to be eclectic ones that gather people together from across a much wider area.
Nobody really seems to know the answer to this question, and yet it has become a critical one. As Christians, we want everyone to know the fresh start, the forgiveness, the new gifts, and the relationships of love which being a Christian brings; and so, in February, the General Synod voted unanimously to have a serving, worshipping Christian community on every significant social-housing estate in the country after years of slow withdrawal from areas characterised by deprivation (News, 1 March).
Dioceses are now busy working out what that means in their own areas. But the goal will be unattainable unless we work out why it is so hard to grow and sustain healthy urban congregations.
JESUS centred his ministry on the poor; so why is it that, today, the gospel seems to be so much more compelling for the rich and powerful? One reason might be the content of our proclamation. Quite simply, a Church run for the most part by relatively wealthy graduates is failing to communicate the Good News in a way that connects to the lives of urban people.
We tend to think of the heart of the gospel as a message that we import from one place to another for people to respond to and so come to faith. For some, that message is about atonement and the promise of eternal life: for example, the simple formula that “Jesus died for our sins.” For others, the message is broader and more upbeat: for example, “God loves us all unconditionally.”
The trouble is, neither of these messages seem to be connecting with urban people because they simply do not relate to the needs and questions that they have. An intellectual message about a mechanism for future salvation is irrelevant if your needs are immediate and pressing. An emotional message about unconditional love sounds passive and patronising if your life is afflicted with the injustices of others, or if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. It’s not that such messages do not carry truth: they are just not hitting home in urban areas.
The problem here is a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the gospel, which is not a message or simplistic formula patient of easy importation. It is a person, Jesus Christ, and relationship with him. By virtue of the incarnation, Jesus is present in all things, in all places, and in every situation. The task of the evangelist is to draw him out and demonstrate him to be already present, so that people can find conscious relationship with the one who made them and longs to draw them home — and that can only be achieved by deep listening and profound understanding of people’s lives. A Church that thinks it knows all the answers will swiftly find that it knows none of them.
DURING the past two years, on contrasting estates across the country, six pairs of practitioners and theologians have engaged in an exercise of deep listening to each other and to estates residents, in order to find Jesus and be converted by him in company. The aim of this “Estates Theology Project” (sponsored by the Estates Evangelism Task Group and with Archbishops’ Council funding) has been to provide an approach to mission that connects with the lives of urban people.
The project has been characterised by two friendly but intense arguments. The first had to do with the relationship between academic theologians and the contemporary Church, and my own contention that professional theologians are becoming less responsive to the needs and priorities of a Church in mission, and, instead, are answering questions that emerge from academia. The enthusiasm of a number of able theologians for participating in the project seemed to dispel that, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
The second argument had to do with prepositions. Was this to be about Good News for the estates, implying that the message of the gospel was one that those of us who knew it imported to those who do not; or Good News on the estates, a different way of saying fundamentally the same thing?
Dr Justin Stratis, from Trinity College, Bristol, was especially zealous, arguing that, in our listening to estates residents, “We come as beggars seeking bread.” Therefore, our chosen preposition was “Good News from the estates”, drawing biblical inspiration from the story of the pearl without price. The Good News is there already; our task, in the company of local people, is to dig it up and show it to the world.
Because this was a project rooted in deep listening, there is, by definition, no single answer to the question, “What is the Good News from the estates?” In Rubery, in South Birmingham, we explored borders and boundaries. In Twydall, near Gillingham, we drew up a gospel manifesto for change. In Wythenshawe, on the edge of Manchester, a community weaving project provided an opportunity for intense listening. In Durrington, on the south coast, we considered the meaning of beauty on an estate near to the sea.
Our hope is that the project will leave behind not one simplistic answer, but a means of proceeding. If you want to know the Good News and proclaim it with authenticity and energy, then, first, get listening. Talk to people about their lives and what is giving them joy and grief. Listen to people on the streets, in the schools, in the pubs, and in community projects. Ask questions about the things that really matter. You will find that the Good News is much better news than any simplified message that we think we can import. It is the rich new Kingdom life that we discover together as we find Jesus gloriously present in every aspect of our lives.
The Rt Revd Philip North is the Suffragan Bishop of Burnley.
Listen here to the first in a series of podcasts exploring the work of the C of E’s Estates Theology group. Liza Ward travels to the Wythenshawe estate in Manchester to see how a weaving project brought William Temple Church closer to those in the community.