New World, New Church
On the first Friday in December our church (The Square Methodist, Dunstable) had hundreds of people outside, a choir on the steps and was fully lit up with coloured lights. Other than make the space available none of this was any of our doing. It was an Advent miracle! The Square, hence its name, happens to be right in the middle of town with the local council’s Christmas tree outside it. It’s a space I know well. On a Sunday morning you may see me outside picking up the rubbish before the service starts or standing outside with a plate of cakes, sharing the abundance that we have inside when it is café worship. Normally it is a deserted space, a handful of people pass every few minutes.
It was a different story this week. Hundreds of parents and schoolchildren had gathered for the lighting of the tree, carols and a light show. At a time which some say has become too focused on the individual people still love to join in. In our small market towns, even with a large percentage who commute into nearby London, there is still a sense of community. Jesus was very used to crowds, but we aren’t. He was always at the centre of the crowd, again we are not. The churches are often on the edge. The Square can accommodate nearly 600 people, we might just have been able to squeeze everyone in on Friday night, it’s an exciting thought! But there is plenty of room for hundreds more on a regular Sunday when we meet for worship. Clearly, we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, or we just haven’t joined up with today’s society.
For those of us who are middle-aged, or older, Christianity is part of society’s furniture. Atheists, agnostics and what we might call ‘cultural Christians’ know about Christianity — the Lord’s Prayer, The 10 Commandments and Prodigal Son are all, even if only a little, familiar. It is not the same for today’s children and young people, the world has moved on, there are fewer religious assemblies in schools as staff are less familiar with religion. There has been a generational change between my generation (mid 50s) and my children’s (late teens/early twenties). The degree to which Christians have noticed this, apart from falling attendance at church, is related to how connected we are to the secular world, and especially to young people outside church settings. And yet …
Religion has not disappeared, it may look that way in church as we see our numbers dwindle (though some congregations continue to grow, especially those which are Evangelical, Charismatic, Pentecostal), it has changed. Organised religion, or the Church, has not always kept pace with this. I am thinking of what we might call ‘secular religion’ or even ‘cultural Christianity’. Sometimes Christians worry about Christ being pushed out Christmas, of it being a secular celebration more than anything else. But it can never not be about Jesus, it’s in the name — Christmas. We can complain, and maybe we do, when we struggle to buy ‘religious’ Christmas cards but it is not for us to fight with those we should be talking to, or expecting others to promote our beliefs, something that we should be doing. The Messianic model is ‘not breaking the bruised reed’ (Isaiah 42.3). It’s time for us to change.
As I stood on the pavement outside the church I looked at the carol sheet that I had been given, it contained ‘Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer’, ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’, ‘Jingle bells’. Many of the carols could be described as secular or not particularly religious, though they were familiar to people, probably more familiar than those that we sing in church. Yet amongst them was ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘Ding dong merrily on high’. We also had Father Christmas reminding us that Christmas was about the birth of the baby Jesus, he stopped a little short of an evangelistic address and I don’t know anything about his beliefs. Due to our church’s involvement, our minister is the mayor’s chaplain, we had a short time of prayer and members of our church were handing out leaflets about Christmas services, as well as cups of hot chocolate. Yet, while celebrating a key part of our faith it was definitely not our event. Perhaps this is right in our current era, better to witness gently as a guest/participant in the public space, alongside others who have already given us some permission than to have the unquestioned privilege of doing so in our ‘own’ space. But it leaves me asking — where are the churches?
Have we abandoned Christmas, except for the events that we put on — the church’s carol singing outside the church later in December? Is our focus on Easter, which although overwhelmed by chocolate and chicks, is uncontested? There is no secular equivalent of the Good Friday Walk of Witness. Easter is more theologically challenging, perhaps more explicitly religious than the other pillar of faith — Christmas — in the annual calendar.
So returning to Jesus, and there is always the risk that we don’t, he was at home in the crowd. He only moved away from the crowd in order to speak to his followers privately, ‘behind closed doors’ as it says in the post-Resurrection Gospel account. He did his best work in the crowd and said that he had been sent to be with the people. In our tradition John Wesley did the same, he was not in the churches but in the fields and open air. Our place is with the crowds, wherever they might be. But when they are on our doorstep, in their hundreds, singing ‘our’ songs, why are we, the Christians of the town from our various denominations, across the theological spectrum, not there, in our hundreds?
Member of the leadership team at The Square Methodist Church, Dunstable.