BBC News has run a story on the Church of England’s efforts to reach out to “spiritual but not religious” people, complete with hipster missionaries sent out to psychic fairs, and alternative meeting and worship services. But do these experiments in boosting church attendance really work? Not so much, according to reporter Jolyon Jenkins.
Ian Mobsby, an emerging church guru, argues we live in the age of the “spiritual tourist”; a “world driven by individualism… where people want to experience something that brings peace, centredness and depth.” He sees parallels between today’s post-religious culture and the early days of Christianity, a time of prevailing mysticism in Europe. “We are entering a world where people aren’t interested in whether something is true or not, or whether they believe it or not, but whether it works,” says Mr Mobsby. In other words, if an emerging church can offer a sense of community and give a feeling of inner peace, that may be enough – belief will follow. But three years into his mission in Telford, Mark Berry’s core community is not spiritual-but-not-religious recruits, but already-committed Christians who use his gatherings to deepen and provide new perspectives on their faith. There may be a hole in people’s lives, but there’s not a great deal of evidence that it is God-shaped.
This isn’t scientific, but my own experiences with alternative Christian outreach programs have backed this up. While the curious may drop in from time to time, the committed members are usually self-identified Christians already. So psychic-fair outreach programs, Church-led extreme-sport events, and goth masses, act more as retention programs than anything else. Not that there is anything wrong with trying to lure estranged church-goers back into the fold, but I agree with “emerging church guru” Ian Mobsby’s claim that were moving into a results-based religious future. A future that doesn’t necessarily favor large institutional religions.
If your faith is losing members, a new marketing plan, no matter how effective, won’t stem the tide. Who knows though? Maybe hanging out in psychic fairs and doing extreme sports will end up changing the outreachers more than the (potentially) outreached. Perhaps these new “hip” emerging-churchers are simply becoming the change they want to see, and that may wind up being a more effective ministry than any sort of “alternative” event. (Thanks to Mike for tipping me off to this story.)