Last week I posted about the situation of the Christian churches in the West as I see it. I posed the question “What does Christianity have to do with real life?” I, rather rashly, promised to share my thoughts about What Is To Be Done this week. All my thoughts are based on reflecting on my experience of being involved in a fresh expression / emerging church thing for the last 10 years or so. Many, even most, of the other people involved are only pretty tangentially attached to church – they have one foot in the secular world, and one foot in the church world, and so, uneasily, represent a bridge between the two, so that those of us who are more firmly embedded in regular church can have a sense of what is real, important, and true for people on the outside. I’m a practitioner, I hope a reasonably reflective one, not an academic missiologist. Finally, this is a reflection on the particular subculture I’m part of: this may not speak to yours. So, preamble and caveats achieved, here goes.
The thing I want to focus on in this post is the possibility opened by the thirst for spirituality in our culture. When Anne and I walked the Camino de Santiago in 2011, very few of the thousands of people there identified as Christian. There is a yoga studio or a spirituality and well-being centre, or both, on every high street in Melbourne, servicing all those “spiritual but not religious” people out there. Why aren’t those people in churches? Because, at least partially, they don’t see Christianity as having anything at all to do with spirituality. Of course, that’s not the case: Christianity is part of a spiritual tradition which goes back thousands of years. We value prayer, examination of conscience (which is very, very close to mindfulness IMHO), traditions of meditation, sacred music, art and literature, holiness and wisdom writing, as well as critical reflection and deep schools of theology and philosophy, and all the rest of it. It is a very, very rich tradition. Why can’t peo
ple see that?
I’ll tell you why: I’m sorry to say that I think it is largely the fault of the church. We have been so captured by modernity that we have emphasised the theoretical (and moralistic) side of Christianity to the almost complete neglect of the spiritual side. This is most obviously true of the protestant churches, and extra-especially for the liberal movement, but, speaking as an outsider, it does seem as though that’s not entirely untrue in the Roman Catholic world as well. The Pentecostal movement seems to me, again as a bit of an outsider, as being a reaction against this overly head-based approach, which pretty often throws the baby out with the bath water when it comes to the balance of reason and experience.
To unpick this question, consider the word “believe.” It is very, very hard for us to see it as meaning anything other than “assent to a proposition.” (assensus) So, when people say they do or do not believe in God, they mean that they assent, or not, to a series of statements which they take as defining God. Of course, those statements may or may not correspond to anything in Christianity (or any other religion.) But even if they do, I wonder if it misses the point.
What I mean is: is it really the correct approach to try to persuade someone to accept certain truth claims about God, and only then allow them into spiritual riches which Christianity has? It seems to me to be significantly handicapping our efforts. Why would people believe in God (in this head sense), especially the Christian God, when it just seems so implausible, or indeed distant from real life? What indeed does this very philosophical God have to do with real life? Perhaps not much.
I have a bit of contact with Ignatian spirituality via the Campion Centre in Melbourne (where Anne is studying to be a spiritual director), and I’m always quite struck by the way they don’t insist on lots of preconditions before they let you go to a retreat or work with a spiritual director. The Christian God is kind of assumed: you either work with it, or else they haven’t got anything much to offer.
So something we are experimenting with at Cafechurch is Caravan. This is a contemplatively-focused, reflective space. Some might call it a church service – and certainly we have communion, read the Bible, sing, and sometimes a micro-sermon (last night I suggested an approach to understanding the gospel reading which took about 10 seconds.) However, we feature lots of silence, including a 10 minute silent meditation on the gospel passage, during which time people are encouraged to enter into the story. We also play some quiet music, light candles, journal, draw, whatever. But the point is to put the contemplative at the centre of it, and not give way to the temptation to engage in lots of discursive preaching. After all, we have a whole evening set aside to talk about stuff!
Basically, I think we should be seducing people with the rich practices of faith. Only when the picture of the Christian God seems even vaguely plausible experientially, when prayer and meditation and scripture have a place in people’s life, is an interesting conversation about God’s existence or otherwise even possible. Only when the universe beyond buying and selling and propping up my ego starts to open up does the idea that the central fact about the universe be God’s self-emptying love start to make any sense – not intellectually, but as a matter of felt experience.
One of the problems for outreach in our culture is just how materialistic it is. There are strong cultural forces which want to keep us focussed on the next batch of shiny tech toys, a new beauty regime, the cool new band, whatever our subculture is into. So it is hard for Christianity to recommend itself – there seem to be few points of contact. But if people could be opened up to what a genuinely Christian worldview feels like, once it can speak to the imagination, then, perhaps, they will be able to say like the Unicorn in Lewis’s Last Battle, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!”