Sometimes it’s nice to be reassured that things aren’t as bad as you think they are. But in the case of Alan Billings, ‘Lost Church’, it’s a more a matter of things shouldn't be as bad as we’ve made them.
Alan’s concern is the same as every church goer’s: where have all the other church goers gone? There’s no doubting that regular church going is in decline, and attacks on the traditional church by the ‘new atheists’ on the rise. But does this mean that spirituality among the British - nominally Christian, population is decreasing? Does it mean that ordinary people no longer feel they need, or even have an affinity for, the Church?
Most People Still Feel Able to Ask for Minstry
In ‘Lost Church’, I found Alan Billings’ answers both reassuring and challenging. “The fact is,” says the Reverend Canon, “the ministry of the Church is still sought by people in certain circumstances. These circumstances may not occur every week, but they have not disappeared entirely… people continue to feel some affinity with the Church (of England) and the faith it stands for and proclaims; they still feel able to ask for ministry in some form and on special occasions.”
So that’s good news! The Church isn’t diminishing in the UK – but it is changing in ways that certainly give that impression. But that’s because we – the churched, have invented very narrow and wholly false definitions of what it means to ‘be Christian’ and to ‘go to church’. Read further, and you find that Alan's observations prove what many of us have suspected for a long time; the people haven’t abandoned church, but the Church has ignored the larger part of the people it was created to serve.
Defining Believers and Non-believers: Not Helpful
In ‘Lost Church’, the author of ‘Making God Possible’ tries to show church leaders and their congregations how the vast majority of occasional church goers still turn to their local church in times of crisis and in times of celebration. This is reassuring yet challenging, as he reveals that since the 1950s we have become obsessed with applying rules of belief and doctrine that divide those inside the church from those outside. Yet the truth is, he claims, the English Church has never been fixated on dogma – it’s always been more of a culture; a tradition of the gospel in action rather than a sytemised set of definitions that split believers from non-believers.
To my mind, this is entirely in keeping with Jesus' words in Matthew 25: 31-46, when he makes a judgement based on what people said they believed but on how they acted, concluding: ‘...truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ This is cultural Christianity in action, not division based on dogma and doctrine.
That’s why the vast majority of the population – though staying resolutely away from church, still identify with its core values and look to it as the natural home for celebrating their weddings, baptisms and funerals; and why they still flock to carol services, mothering Sunday services and Remembrance day commemorations. This is where we will find the ‘Lost Church’. It’s along these traditional routes, still trodden by a Church not so much lost as abandoned, that lead back to the natural, spiritual home which longs for their return like the father of the prodigal son. The question is, do we 'inside' the Church have the grace to let them back in? If you care about putting right our arrogant mistakes of the past, read this book. – Les Ellison.
January 22nd, 2013 - Posted & Written by Les Ellison