A report out today from TEAR Fund, which you can read here if you've got time to go through 50 pages (though the charts are a nice colour), looks at patterns of churchgoing, and in the research asked people what would be likely to make them go to church more often.
One finding was that a significant number of people - TEAR fund estimate up to 3 million, might be open to going to church more often. However, for most of these it would be because a close family member started going, or if they were asked by a friend. Cold calling from the church (or leafletting?), according to the survey, wouldn't have a big impact.
Reading the comments on the BBC website is quite eye-opening: if you sort them by 'most popular' the two overriding messages are a) stop being so rude about Christians b) rude things about Christians, or comments from atheists or people who wouldn't dream of going near a church to find God.
Mission researchers have been saying for years that trying to get people to 'come back to church' is on the way out. Certainly out of folk who've never been to church, or who used to come to church but no longer do, it is a small fraction who are open to 'going to church'. 83% of those who have once been church members but left said they are 'not at all likely' or 'not very likely' to become regular churchgoers. Of those who've never been church members, 72% are 'not at all likely' and 23% 'not very likely' - 95% in all. Scary.
Scary, that is, if mission is about getting people to come to church. But is it? In the words of Jesus 'go into all the world and make them come to church.' Spot the deliberate mistake. And lets face it some of our churches are not shining adverts for the gospel - another story in the news today of a child abusing priest, and most of us have sat in cold, uncomfortable buildings listening to dirgeful singing, dull preaching and left feeling less inspired than when we went in. Be honest: church, cinema, concert of your favourite music, Doctor Who. Rank them in order of how inspired, exhilarated, stimulated and more alive you feel as a result of them.
Ok, going to church is not all about inspiration and zappiness, but there ought to be some relationship between Jesus talking about 'life in all its fullness', the gifts of the Spirit (including joy & love), and a community which Jesus says will cause people to praise God when they see it in action, and the church as it actually is.
Lots more to say about this but for the moment:
1. In mission, we need to stop starting with the church. It is not about how we get more bums on pews. We should probably get rid of the pews anyway. We need to start with what Jesus started with: discipleship, the Kingdom of God, living God's way. We try to have a mission-shaped church but often end up with a church-shaped mission.
2. 'How do we get more people into church?' is the wrong question. Again, that's not Jesus way. How do we help more people find Jesus is a better question. For the majority of our population, the church in its present mode is not part of the solution.
Cartoon courtesy of Dave Walker at www.cartoonchurch.com