Church just isn't there when you need it

November 2001 'Small Fire' column for Ship of Fools

"Most alt.worship communities are not growing significantly, and in spite of the attempt to be culturally relevant, are not appealing to those whom they seek to reach." [Neil Elliot, in a mail to CMS quoted on the alt worship forum]

I always feel a kind of visceral anger when I read something like this. Even if it's true, it hurts. It feels like a put-down, a way of dismissing [even though in this case it isn't at all]. What is growing, church-wise, I ask? Alternative worship, I might reply, is spreading - so the total numbers creep up even if individual groups don't grow. But instead of feeling defensive I'd do better to analyse why the above statement seems true. Because I don't believe that alternative worship has failed, but that it reveals to us that we are in a more difficult situation than we had imagined.

I'm not sure how much 'seeking to reach' we do. Many in alternative worship find that it becomes their chief social circle - it takes up enough of their time to push into the background any non-Christian friends. The people you make worship with are likely to be or become your bosom buddies. Other attachments are less likely to be as close or regular - by the time you're 30 your other friends are your work colleagues, plus mates you've held on to from school or college. And they're too busy to get round to coming to your event, even if they're interested. We live in a culture, after all, where you invite people to parties and they all ring up at the last minute and make excuses. They're busy, or tired, or their partner wants something else, or something better came up. And that's parties. What hope for church?

At the moment, becoming a Christian from a completely non-Christian background involves clearing huge spaces in your busy life so that you can insert large blocks of time and commitment called church. Those of us who have been Christians for years, or who have been brought up to go to church, hardly realise how big a task this making of space for church might be.

This is toughest among the 20s-50s - alternative worship's 'target market' - so it's no wonder that these services struggle to grow in regular attendance. Even the committed people in that age range can barely find time for church activities. This is the age group that drop out unless they have to bring the kids to Sunday School. Since this often [still] devolves upon mother, the men go missing and many don't come back - which is why the older age groups in churches are predominantly female.

The 20s-50s are also the age group least likely to have surplus time and energy for 'making your own worship'. The arrival of children in particular can turn a vibrant group into a struggle to attend.

Teenagers and the retired are easier, in that they are more grateful for activities that fill large chunks of time and provide a social nexus. So youth church [if it's styled right for that fickle audience] and old church [if it's styled right for that conservative audience] do relatively well.

Where evangelical churches score in the growth stakes is with people who are looking for a change of life. When your life isn't working, everything is up for grabs. The overturning of timetables and commitments, the big change of social circles and spare time activities - the new start - are exactly what is wanted. So crisis and conversion still offers a model of growth, that works for church as it now is.

And personal crisis may be what is required to get people into church. We shouldn't underestimate the size of the barriers we are asking people to cross. When was the last time you dropped into a Hindu temple or a mosque for a bit of light spiritual refreshment? Our feeling that church is a relatively easy thing to drop into is a hangover from the days of 'Christian' society. Maybe in America the case still holds [just]. But here it's long gone. Ironically, by removing the cultural impediments alternative worship reveals the glass screen that still separates us. And few have their noses pressed against it, looking in. They've learned to shop elsewhere.

The rogue element in all this, of course, is church - the way current models demand attendance for large blocks of time, fixed inflexible times, and fill it with something rather more dull than TV or football or food or friends. Why would anybody bother? Where's the attraction? It's spiritually good for us? Sure, in the way that cod liver oil is good for us.

Church just isn't there when you need it.
When the kid's been sick on the floor.
At 11.30am between meetings
At midnight after the football

There's prayer you say. But we don't know how to. We need something to do. Prayer - the model of prayer most of us have - is horribly abstract. Like being stuck in a featureless room with a half-stranger, lost for words. If you could offer them a beer or a cup of tea you could at least start a conversation. Those little social rituals that smooth the path to intimacy. So where's the spiritual equivalent?

Of course if you're a Catholic you have partial answers to these conundra. The church is open long hours, you drop in and out to catch a mass, at home you have shrines and statues and stuff to help you pray. But I'd say that the forms and content need updating, diversifying, rethinking into the 21st century - which is more than modernising. Not Buddy Christ please.

Here's an idea: how would you produce a DVD of spiritual resources for your Playstation? What would be on it? How would it play? How would it handle multiple players? How would the scoring work? Imagine having to stop your children wasting time on Christianity... so that you can have a go.

But isn't this open to abuse? Popular religion, little better than superstition or magic. Maybe it's just down to our creativity. Which is worse, popular Christianity or no Christianity? Should we worry less about what people are doing, and be grateful that they're doing something? Are we in the church obsessed with doctrinal correctness? How come you can't worship correctly until you've learnt to think correctly? Where does this leave those who can't ever think correctly?

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