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BACK TO THE UPPER ROOM

Goodness knows why I was born in an age in which “programs” loom large in the life of the church. Those which relate to such areas as church growth, evangelism and related subjects often look rather like those enthusiastic group meetings beloved of commercial firms which exist to sell products. There’s nothing strange in this. We live in a commercial society. Every time we turn on our televisions we are bombarded by advertisements for products. The science of how best to exploit a market is the necessary adjunct to having something to sell.

It seems natural that as we have a Gospel to sell -or rather give away – we should be influenced by the culture of commerce when we consider how best to present to those outside our churches the Gospel we have been given as a trust to pass on. The way we tackle that commission nowadays is colored by the brand of Christianity we represent. In our denominational world, every community has a large number of brands all competing for the same market.  Look at the church page in your local newspaper and you will find all sorts and conditions of Christian communities advertising the times and places of their Sunday and weekday meetings. Web pages offer glimpses og what to expect if one decides to visit, to go through the church doors and experience that which is being offered.

So how do we capture a market, respond to those who come to our show rooms?  How do we prepare our devotees to welcome “new people”, make them feel at home enough to seek “membership” in our communities? After all we are “site based”  fellowships and most of our corporate Christian life goes on at those sites. As in the business world, our success is based on the number of people who meet together regularly to experience and participate in worship. So our preoccupation is worship based.  Worship has become our evangelism tool. Evangelical churches construct worship around a sermon, a talk often tailored to convert to Christ those who turn up for worship.  In “catholic” churches worship often assumes that those who are drawn in immediately proceed to a post-conversion life. Perhaps enquirers’ classes are tacked on to prepare people for commitment but it is usually assumed that those enquiring in a class are to form part of the worshipping community immediately.  We hope they will enjoy our way of worship even before they assent to what worship is all about.

In the past the Episcopal Church has prided itself on its ability to draw people from other religious traditions who find in what we do something they feel they have lacked before. Indeed a go0d deal of comment about the announcement that the Roman Catholic Church is opening itself up to  Anglicans has been countered by accounts of how many Roman Catholic Christians convert to Anglicanism.  Evangelism is in such a case based on weakening “denominational” loyalties which means that Christians feel free to shop around for the church which suits their needs.  In response many of our church growth activity centers on just how to attract such a market and make such shoppers welcome. One might describe this as ecclesiastical musical chairs.

During the past few decades our Episcopal Church has presented its wares in the form of culture which appeals to fairly affluent, educated and “progressive” people. The dwindling constituency of  traditionalist Anglicans in America peddles its products wrapped to appeal to politically conservative people, similarly affluent and well educated.  Church growth programs are assumed to be neutral in all this, with ideas and methods suitable for use by either constituency.  All buy into religious consumerism.  Buy the brand which best suits your needs and desires!

Meanwhile, as if by stealth, a growing number of people outside the churches are not in the market for any of these products. They live their lives untouched by “organized religion”, are often the second or third generation of post-Christians and see nothing on our web pages or advertisements anything which “attracts” them.  They are not atheists or agnostics in the traditional sense of those terms.  They are simply not attracted to Christianity and see no contact between what goes on in their day to day lives and what goes on in a church.

One of the contributing factors in all this is that our society is no longer particularly open to joining groups, unless one may belong “on-line”.  Men and women work. Children go to school, play sports and learn to play the violin!  Giving up time in such a frantic and exhausting life to spend in a community activity demands an extraordinary motivation and sacrifice.  The media, the internet and its components have taken the place of  clubs and organizations. “The family that prays together, stays together” seems an odd slogan in an age in which the family is narrowed to its smallest unit.

How then, do we adjust to the new world while remaining faithful to the Great Commission?  Jesus told us to “go tell”, “baptize”. “Do this in remembrance”, “Love one another”.  For centuries in the West, it has been assumed that the job was done.  After the Reformation our sights were centered on presenting our competing forms of Christianity to a population made up of believers. “Conversion” meant choosing which brand we would join, or our remaining faithful to the brand into which we were “born”.

Inevitably we assume that nothing has changed. “How do we attract new members” supposes that we have something attractive to offer.  As Episcopalianism dwindles in “membership”, in itself a deeply problematical term, its motive for evangelism becomes more and more centered, in practice, as how to get  enough people through the red doors to pay for clergy and the upkeep of Victorian piles or poorly constructed “modern” buildings which seem to deteriorate even more swiftly than older buildings. Whenever built, these community centers more and more are as attractive to outsiders as a masonic lodge.  I won’t enter into the subject of the job description now given to clergy, who are usually concluded to be care givers to those who belong.

Yet the life of so many post-Christians is lonely, isolated, and the growing complexity of life leaves many disoriented and their lives more and more dysfunctional.  It is not at all odd that those who can afford to do so resort to therapists, the new priests of our society.

How do we as Christians, by our very status disassociated from the rest of society -or are we? – to discover ways to share the faith that is within us?  We ask our parishioners to share with others what we have to offer.  Usually the response we get is that their friends go to a church.  Of course at least at school, at work, or where we eat out regularly, not all the people we meet are churched.  But then we are constrained by centuries of teaching that religion is personal, an optional addition to life and certainly not something to bother others with. That would be presumptuous.

So the question to which I have no ready answer is just how does the church starts to listen to the unchurched. To listen we have to communicate. Yet most of our intentional communication still centers around how we can make what we do more attractive to get people to “join” rather than finding out  how we may best enter into their lives and demonstrate how wholeness of life is the product of a life lived in communion with God and each other.  And it may just be that as we no longer actually believe that God much cares whether people are Christians or not, just as long as they are “good” – and goodness (Godness) is often a subjective determination – are they nice and kind and right thinking – we have become less  urgent about our discipleship to the world for Christ?

It is often suggested that we have return ed to a pre-Christian scene. No.  For when the Gospel was first preached it was preached to religious societies, “pagan” communities but yet communities to which some form of religion was usual.  But we are now sent to evangelize a world to which in the West is non-religious.  True, at funerals and perhaps marriages, God is still often invoked. Yet in day to day life God is absent, irrelevant, and the church mysterious, a club for those who like that sort of thing. We have retreated to the Upper Room for fear of those outside.

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