Thursday, July 02, 2009

Fringe Benefits

recent thoughts from Jonathan Gledhill, Bishop of Lichfield, on the church 'fringe':

the Church has a problem too. When people come to us with their spiritual needs and desires we often don’t know what to do with them and sometimes send them away with a flea in their ear. We are quite good at making them feel hypocritical if they want a church wedding or a christening; almost always they want to be serious in making their promises but we don’t quite hear them.

They don’t know how to put their spiritual experiences into our Christian language and so we dismiss their awkward or embarrassed attempts to say what they want.

All the evidence shows that most people are far from hostile to the church; they are just not in a position to respond to an “all or nothing” commitment straight away. Adults who become Christians almost always do it in stages. They need to know Christians they can trust who will accompany them on a journey of faith, marked by several steps of commitment on the way. The man who said, “I’m a regular churchgoer, vicar, I come each Christmas,” was not just being flip. Underneath the joke was a serious desire to have God in his life.

Most parishes work hard at building up a fringe of people who are “not yet Christians.” The parents and toddlers club, the after-school club, the hospitality events, the open days - all these work well in many places...

A vicar from another diocese said to me recently that mission for him was getting the Sunday morning Eucharist right. I know what he means... But in practice, whatever our style or tradition of Sunday service, we have turned in ourselves, concentrated on the detail, and made our “fringe” much smaller because our main services are less accessible.

When Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount he made sure that the crowds were in earshot as well as the committed disciples... If we are going to go on calling ourselves “parish churches” we have a duty to wrestle creatively with this gap we have created and find a way of filling it.

The parish communion movement was not meant to make us into an exclusive sect but in some places that is the unintended consequence. It need not be so.

- fully agree with his argument about 'parish churches'. To serve the parish, worship needs to be accessible to those who might try it out. Communion is (unless you're brought up with it) thoroughly bizarre: drinking symbolic blood? Kneeling down for a circular plasticky wafer thing?

- as Gledhill says, for most people Christian commitment takes time. It's useful to have things like Alpha or confirmation courses to offer people, but not to make folks feel they're second class if they don't want to take them up (difficult balancing act).

- there is some interesting research from a thing called The Marriage Project on what couples expect from the church when they come for a wedding, which I'll blog about in a few days, which finds that couples coming to church for a wedding are normally serious about both marriage and spiritual matters, but often don't have the language to articulate this.

Ht Thinking Anglicans

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