The Future of the Church (Michael Moynagh)

Monday, 5 November, 2012

Michael Moynagh discusses the future of the Church. Does the modern world simply have no room for the Church any more or has the church simply failed to adapt? What would it take to see the revival of the Church?

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Michael Moynagh: Go to any congregation on a Sunday morning, look at the age structure and you know that in twenty years' time the bottom drops out of the church. Statistically that is the case, that the generation my age upwards, we all move on and in 2030, if you look at the age structure of the church across the country, there is not many people left.

The sociologist David Voas, he and a colleague did a study of belief and faith across Europe and what they found was that in every country, every generation was less religious than the generation before. They attended church less often, they prayed less often, they had less belief. They used the phrase fuzzy fidelity, you get a generation who is churchgoing, the next generation has a sort of fuzzy fidelity, a fuzzy relationship to church, they're kind of supportive but they're not really involved. The generation after that has much less commitment, the generation after that, virtually no commitment.

They would say that the modern world has no room for Christian faith, no wonder the church is in decline. Others of us would say well maybe the problem is that the church hasn't adapted to this changing world. So it's a bit like the cinema audiences in the 1980s which were declining and a lot of people said well that's because of television, so inevitable that cinema attendance will decline. But the cinema owners and the managers they took a different view. And they said no, the problem is that if you look at these cinemas they're dark, they're dingy, they smell etc. etc. and so they completely revamped their buildings, they completely revamped the cinema experience and attendance began to rise. Not a perfect comparison with church but it demonstrates I think that it is possible for institutions that appear to be in decline to reverse the decline if they accept that there are things that they can do.

Many of us would say that fresh expressions may be a sign of how it is that the church adapts. Because what these new types of church are doing is they're much more based around people where they live their lives, you get them certainly in the residential part of people's lives but you also get them in leisure centres, you get them in pubs and cafés of course, some are emerging in the workplace and there is a hint there that we could see church reconnecting with whole swathes of life that it's become largely disconnected from, thanks to the industrial revolution. Before the industrial revolution, yep, church was right at the centre of the village, it was at the centre of work, the saints days and the feast days at the centre of holiday, church was right at the heart of life. But with the industrial revolution you had a separation between work and home and church stayed with the home bit of life and not much of church went with the work bit of life. In the 20th century of course you had the expansion of leisure, church wasn't there either, wasn't particularly present in the political movements and the ecology movements. Well, church in every context, which is kind of what these fresh expressions are beginning to point to, suggests something rather different.

First of all I think there's a big room still for traditional forms of church. I think we don't live in a culture which is either-or, we live in a culture that is both-and. And people can be very modern in one part of their lives and very traditional in another part of their lives. So I would expect - and we see this already happening to some extent - I would expect to see more and more people attending both new innovative types of church but also more traditional forms of church. I came across a fresh expression, they wouldn't call themselves that, but they call themselves a heavy metal congregation. And they do something once a month with the Anglo-Catholic church round the corner. Very interesting. Not what you'd expect perhaps but here you are, the new and the traditional fitting together. So that I think will be one part of the picture.

Another part of the picture I suspect will be a polarisation between the large and the small. I think we'll find lots of very small churches that are quite intimate and friendly in that kind of way and then there'll be larger churches - 250, 500 people, 1,000, which have all the facilities you could ever want in terms of child... provision for children and young adults and teenagers and masses of courses and all the rest for adults, and where there are terrific benefits because of their size. And I think you'll get both those, fresh expressions maybe in both those camps - who knows, time will tell. I think the middle-sized churches, as we're already seeing, of 150, 120 people, I think they're going to continue to be squeezed.

I think these new fresh expressions, there are many more than we realise. Some of the research that's being done into some of the dioceses in Liverpool and Canterbury are showing that. My own experience is exactly the same, I keep bumping into people who are doing and involved in what we would call fresh expressions - they don't it call it that, they're right under the radar - but there they are. So I think that there are many more of these new types of church emerging than we realise, I think there's a huge source of hope but we could see many more if the existing church really wants to get behind it and support it.

Big challenge is for existing church. Are they going to really put resources into this. You know, if you don't put resources into something new, no-one notices. But if you take away resources from something that already exists in order to put resources into something new then everyone screams. So it's not surprising that existing church finds it really hard to put resources into these new forms of church. But we need training for the lay leaders of these churches, we need training for the clergy who kind of oversea these churches and link them up, we need resources, there is a huge amount we need to do if we're going to build on what is a grass roots movement. If we don't build on it, I think it will happen anyway, but it won't happen nearly to the extent. But if we do build on it then I think we could see a huge revival in the church.


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