Life after Christendom
Published in Movement magazine issue 122 January 2006
Post-Christian I will never be, but post-Christendom is where we all already are. The alternative worship movement has always resisted being seen as just another attempt to feed people into the existing forms of church. I think there was a time when many of us thought that that was possible, even desirable, but now it's an entirely different project - how does Christianity function in post-Christendom? How do we collaborate, stay in touch, worship, act together without the umbrella of Big Church? How are we church, if we can't just turn up to the building on the corner any more [it's been turned into flats]? How are we church, if there are no professionals any more to run the show and hold the fort? How are we church, when 'a churchless faith' becomes the only kind [in, let's say twenty years or so]?
I don't think that the institutional forms will disappear entirely. But they will be less available, as already happens in rural England. Maybe there will be fewer and larger churches, for organizational and financial sustainability. Maybe [now here's a thought] the institutions will stop providing actual services. Think of it as outsourcing. Like going from making the products and owning the shops to only making the products and selling off the retail end of the business. The stuff still sells, but you don't do the selling any more. The central bodies of denominations, doing theology, liturgy, hymnbooks etc are manufacturing; the churches and clergy are retail. Sell off the retail arm... just a thought.
Let's follow that analogy a little further. So now there are no 'shops' you have direct selling. Tupperware parties, or Ann Summers. Someone comes round to show you the new liturgies, worship tricks etc 'in the privacy of your own home'. You buy a few. They become part of the fabric of your lives. They're in your kitchen, so to speak, you don't have to go to a restaurant to use them [that's the Tupperware analogy, I'll leave you to pursue the other one]. The neighbours comment admiringly.
But seriously folks, how do we wean ourselves from dependency on professionals and institutions for the sustenance and expression of our faith? We are like people who mostly eat at restaurants because we can't cook for ourselves, or only basic fare.
One key thing I see is that you can't go it alone. A churchless faith doesn't mean a solitary faith. De-institutionalised is a more accurate word than churchless. People find other people, other resources for their spiritual lives outside the present institutions. What are the seeds of Christian community and faith journey? How are they nurtured, facilitated? One of the strengths of the alternative worship movement is what often seems like its great weakness - the focus on making an act of worship. That's the seed around which communities condense, something that keeps them together when people aren't getting on or are tired, a reason to meet when there is no other compelling reason to meet. And it's hard to imagine any communal expression of Christianity without some kind of communal worship - whatever that is taken to mean. Something reaching Godward.
What about other seeds? Some communities are looking at monastic forms - living according to a 'rule' that forms them as individuals and as communities. The idea isn't to go around in a hooded garment, but to get into a habit - of spiritual practices and of life practices. Maybe this involves simultaneity - all doing the same thing at the same time wherever you are. Physically alone, but not alone.
We're going to have to be inventive. One of the dangers of spirituality is that it becomes cerebral - something to think about, talk about, be silent about. What is the physical, technological, artistic expression? Christ said, "Take this and eat it", "Take this and drink it", and the intellectualisation of that leaves us hungry and thirsty. Free of Christendom, what will you cook? What music will you make? What spaces, what actions? Mission is a funny word, but - what will the 'non-believers' actually see?