My heart went out to the old gentleman. I was at one of my many visits to Church Councils, trying to sell them our Diocesan Developing Discipleship Programme, which is basically Mission Action Planning, but we’re not allowed to call it that. I’d done a reasonable job, I’d thought, but he stood up to speak with despair in his voice. He told us he was from a tiny village church, with a congregation of about three, all in their 70s, and over the years they had tried everything to get people into the church. What hope could the Diocese possibly offer them? Never mind about five-year goals: they were unlikely to be there at all in five years’ time.
He told us in particular about a mass leafleting of every house in the village to invite people to their Easter Sunday service, to which the response was one newcomer, a member of a larger church nearby, for whom the service time was more convenient on that day. My heart went out to him because I have heard his story again and again around the Diocese, from people who, like him, were at rock bottom because they had tried everything and still they were declining and dying. People out there feel alone and unsupported, and the new attempts by the Diocese to try to bring help and support seem far too little too late.
But what particularly struck me on this occasion was a phrase he used. They had tried everything, he said. They had invited people to coffee mornings, bring and buy sales: ‘all the things the church normally does’. And no-one was interested. I knew exactly how he felt, but in his dejection he did not seem to have drawn the obvious conclusion: nobody wants the things the church normally does. We need to start doing some things we don’t normally do instead.
This thought was taken further in another parish where another elderly gentleman was telling with great enthusiasm about their attempts to do just that. Every time they held anything special, people would come. Christingles, Pet services, Remembrance Sunday, you name it and people would be queuing at the door. But their normal Sunday services continued to dwindle. So now they make sure they do something special regularly, every time there’s a fifth Sunday. I wanted to ask ‘Why keep on doing the stuff no-one likes at all?’ I know that doing something special every week robs it of its ‘specialness’, but the big question was the same in the two different parishes: why do we just keep doing things which all the evidence suggests nobody but us wants to do, the things the church normally does?
At the other end of the age spectrum my son wrote an article where he asks the same question with regard to young people. He suggests that
If young people find church boring, irrelevant or alien, then there is of course the possibility that it’s because church is boring, irrelevant and alien.
You can read the full article here, but essentially the questions are very close to each other. I know, of course, that in many places the point of no return may already have been reached, and three people in their seventies have neither the time, the energy nor the ability to do much in terms of innovation. Perhaps there needs to be some more death before new life can emerge in a very different form.
Image: Thomas Nugent [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons