Friday, July 17, 2009

Where to Start?

A conference in Durham earlier this week heard the full results of the Biblical Literacy Survey, which found that a large and increasing proportion of the UK population knew virtually nothing about the Bible, and even though 3/4 of us own one, most of these are in archaic language, or simply sit unread on the bookshelf (or in the attic).

During the summer we get a surge of interest in baptisms - funny that! It's clearly a good time for people to travel, and for widely spread families makes a lot of sense for celebrating the big day in a childs life. We've got roughly 2 a week until early September.

I've recently taken to giving baptism couples a copy of Mark's gospel. It's increasingly normal to find younger families a) have never read the Bible and b) don't even have one of their own. Some of them pray, and worship regularly with us. However the foundations that we used to depend on - some knowledge of the Christian story, the life and teaching of Jesus etc. - is no longer there. Having a local Christian bookshop is really handy, as I always suggest a childrens bible and prayer book as a good idea for a baptism present. Many families have no idea these even exist.

At one level, this puts us back into the New Testament world. The Bible is more relevant now than it has been since Constantine made Christianity the state religion in the 4th century, because we are back with a culture where Christianity is no longer the default setting. Yet in another way we aren't: Paul as a missionary could call on knowledge of the Old Testament (with Jews) or on the practice of worship and prayer (with pagans) as the background for his message about Jesus.

What do you do if neither are present? How (and this is a question Graham Cray is now repeatedly asking) do you disciple people from this sort of background, who might only come along once a month to 'Messy Church' or - in our case - a cafe service.

In a sense, this is where Alpha comes into its own. Yes it's long and a bit posh and full of shiny happy people who only seem to exist in large quantities in Kensington. But it's 45m every week of teaching on the Christian faith, and for people who have virtually zero, it begins to give them a basis. Using the Emmaus materials for our confirmation course gets some people to open up and read the Bible for the first time. It will be a while before they get the confidence to do that for themselves, and not be completely bemused by what they're reading.

In our cafe service itself, Story Keepers has been really helpful, cartoons about the life and teaching of Jesus which hold the childrens attention, but frequently are news to the adults as well. And they're visual. I'm now using 'The Christ We Share' in baptism preparation, lots of different pictures of Jesus, and asking people to pick the ones they like and can relate to. These visual things seem to work better, but in a culture where people prefer visuals over text, how do we then promote Bible reading?

And meanwhile our Street Pastors are accosted every week (it seems) by people who are nowhere near the institutional church, but want to talk about God. It's not as though spiritual needs have gone away, maybe we're back to the unknown God, except he's so unknown we've not even built him/her/it an altar.

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