An article that Sally Coleman put a link to on Facebook has got me thinking (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/may/07/mind-body-spirit-dereformation-religion). In it the writer, Linda Woodhead, asserts, “…the main features that have characterised religion in Britain since the Reformation of the 16th century have given way. For most people, religion has ceased to be a matter of belonging to a clerically led community, affirming unchanging dogma, participating in prescribed rituals, and holding conservative social attitudes. It’s transformed into something else.”
For many orthodox Christians this is depressing reading. The statistics she quotes are even more alarming. Church attendance halved between 1950 and 1980 and halved again between 1980 and 2005. Only 6.3% of the UK population now regularly attend church according to Christian Research. Belief in “a personal God” has declined from 57% to 26% between 1961 and 2000 (British Religion in Numbers). While those refusing to identify with any religion, has increased from 31% in 1983 to 51% in 2009, according to British Social Attitudes.
So what should our response be? Last night, I was pondering which bit of the Bible to study next and felt drawn to Ezekiel. Here is what Eugene Petersen says in his introduction to this book in ‘The Message’, “When catastrophe struck….Ezekiel found himself living among a people of God who (astonishingly similar to us!) stubbornly refused to see what was right before their eyes (the denial crowd). There were also some who were unwilling to see anything other than what was right before their eyes (the despair crowd). But Ezekiel saw. He saw what the people couldn’t or wouldn’t see…He showed them that, yes, there was catastrophe, but God was at work in the wreckage and rubble, sovereignly using the disaster to create a new people of God.”
We can choose then to ignore what is happening in our nation and resolutely cling on to our traditions and well-worn ways of doing. Perhaps the hope is that God will bring revival. He will pour out His Spirit and millions will return to church on a Sunday morning without much effort required on our part. Alternatively, we can wring our hands and bemoan our lot as a persecuted minority who hark back to a golden age of Christendom. But like Ezekiel, I can see a third way. This is one of the great and infuriating things about pioneers, if you give them options, they will always go for one you hadn’t suggested!
Linda Woodhead goes on to say, “…real religion – which is to say every day, lived religion – is thriving and evolving…Religion has returned to the core business of sustaining everyday life, supporting relations with the living and the dead and managing misfortune. That’s why angels, cathedrals, pilgrimages and retreats are all doing so well. And why mind, body, spirit has taken over from theology in the bookshops.” For me this is exciting and hopeful. This is where God is at work in what we might consider to be the “wreckage and rubble” of our Christian heritage. There is something real and honest and integrated about this spirituality which the church can embrace. Instead of filling our buildings with those who have prayed a prayer of salvation and are trying to behave themselves so they get into heaven when they die we can refocus on making disciples and partnering with God to transform His world!
The church has always reformed to make sense of Christ for the people it is reaching out to with His love and power. So let’s creatively engage. And when we see alternative spirituality, think opportunity rather than threat. That is why I will be on the Dekhomai stand at the Mind, Body, Spirit Festival at Earls Court next week (www.mindbodyspirit.co.uk). If you are there, drop by and say hello. If not, please pray for us and if you would like to make a donation towards our work do get in touch.