The Invisible Church - an update
An article by the Church Missionary Society
In 2017, I wrote a blog on The largest part of the Church in the UK which included a review of The Invisible Church, a book based on research by Steve Aisthorpe.
In brief, Steve came back to the UK in 2007 after 12 years overseas. He found himself wrestling with the contradiction between the concept of the local church congregation being God's primary agent for the gospel and what he was seeing on the ground as hundreds of thousands of people no longer turned up. He was able to talk to and survey a substantial number of those who were no longer attending 'church' and published his findings.
He busted a lot of myths and stereotypes and concluded with some thoughts on the way ahead. Is the Church in transition, on a journey? Moving from institutional to organic? Moving from roles, activities, structures, set ways of doing things to being shaped by the people, their gifts, visions and relationships? A rise in 'alternative faith-based community'. There is relief and hope here. Relief that the decline in church-goers does not equate to a corresponding decline in Christianity and hope because Christian fellowship is being expressed in fresh ways. There is also pain; the grief of those attached to particular institutions, the emotional struggles of those disengaging, the failure to recognise each other as authentic parts of the Christian family.
Recently, the CMS published an article by Steve which gives an update on his latest research:
In 2018, 68 people from the original interviews and “Investigating the Invisible Church” survey were re-interviewed or resurveyed in a “five years on” study. Although a small sample, these were people about whom we already knew a lot. Their contributions changed our previous snapshots into a longitudinal study, enabling us to see and better understand the dynamics of their journeys in life and faith.
Among those re-interviewed, most were still pursuing their faith in non-congregational ways. These people described the habits and connections they had formed in order to sustain their well-being and growth. A few had re-engaged with a church congregation during the intervening years. Invariably, these people reported differences in the nature of their relationship with the congregation when compared to times prior to disengaging. Typically, they described being less involved and feeling more on the fringe. Some people described how they had become part of a new faith-based community of some sort. For some this was the outcome of their intentional actions; for others this happened in an almost subconscious way, as they responded to opportunities and found themselves at the nucleus of an emerging group.
A key finding of the “five years on” study was that among Christians not engaged with a church congregation, a much higher proportion of people demonstrated a preference for 'thinking' than would be expected in typical church congregations. This finding among our modest sample reinforces the data from a study with a larger sample looking at the differences between churchgoers and church leavers. That found that all of the types most significantly over-represented among church leavers included a preference for 'thinking'. Those who have studied the kinds of community in which thinking types thrive report that they need an environment that offers intellectual stretching, welcomes logic and encourages questioning. Those with a 'thinking' preference favour an approach to God that is rational and intellectual and are likely to struggle with acts of corporate worship and teaching planned and delivered by people with a strong 'feeling' preference. Whereas the majority in church congregations who prefer 'feeling' find prayer and worship to be emotional activities, for those relatively rare 'thinking' types, spirituality has a strong cerebral element.
Another revelation in the “five years on” study was that Christians who are not engaged with a local church congregation are often high scorers in terms of quest orientation - for 40 per cent of our cohort, quest orientation was the dominant component. These are people for whom asking questions and exploring doubts is fundamental to their faith. This data reinforces the previous observation that “when eager disciples cannot find in church the space and companionship they need to explore questions and doubts, they seek these things elsewhere”.
Any simplistic notion of the UK missional context being what is sometimes conceptualised as “the 85+ per cent” of the population that has no significant engagement with church needs to be reviewed and revised. The evidence is clear that the population beyond current congregational life is far from homogenous in terms of experience of church and attitude to Christian faith. A substantial proportion have considerable experience of church, see themselves as part of the worldwide Christian family and are actively pursuing the Jesus Way.
The search for those with an aptitude and vocation for pioneering mission needs to stretch beyond church congregations. Many Christians with “the gift of not fitting in” have moved away from congregations dominated by “guardians of the status quo”. Others, having encountered the pioneer Jesus outside the setting of congregational Christianity, have chosen to practice faith in a non-congregational way.
Research in fresh expressions of church suggest that these are inadvertently providing environments in which certain psychological types can thrive. Whereas church congregations in general contain a preponderance of sensing and feeling types, data from fresh expressions shows high proportions of people with psychological preferences that are uncommon or rare in conventional church contexts.
The relatively high scoring on the quest religious orientation scale among Christians who are not engaged with a church congregation adds support to the notion that lack of opportunity to “ask questions and explore doubts” is an important part of the “road to post-congregational faith” for many church leavers. Pioneering ventures that create opportunities for asking questions and exploring doubts in non-threatening and non-judging contexts may foster discipleship and community with those who have experienced “unintentional exclusion” in some inherited church cultures.
The majority of church leavers become disappointed or frustrated with inherited modalities of congregational life in general, rather than the worship style, polity or theological flavour. It is not surprising, therefore, that many non-congregational Christians who display an aptitude for pioneering often seem to use their pioneering gifts towards the “community activism/ social enterprise” end of that continuum, rather than as “church replicators” or pioneering adaptations of a recognised model of church.
When mission is understood in terms of the “Five Marks of Mission”, many non-congregational Christians are actively involved in the mission of God. Some of those encountered in the course of the research outlined here are pioneers of loving service, creation care or social action.
While there appears to be a general reluctance among church leaders to ask Christians who are not involved with a local church congregation about their experiences and perspectives, people approached in the course of the research outlined here were invariably pleased to be asked and willing to share. Many reported that it was the first time they had been asked to recount their experiences. The Church Leaving Applied Research Project found that 92 per cent of their respondents had not been contacted by the congregation they left in the period following their disconnection. Pioneers should be reassured that, when approached with genuine, non-judging curiosity, and offered confidentiality, many people are willing to share their journey in faith – and appear to be blessed by the experience.
Read the full article here.
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