Friday, July 21, 2006

Sundays suit some but churches must look outside box, says Church researcher

21 July 2006

A senior Church of England researcher has called on parishes to expand the scope of their vision, urging churches to think beyond their own walls and beyond the hours of Sunday in their attempts to engage communities with the message of the Gospel.

“Are we prepared to be flexible and responsive in our approach to church buildings and church services as we seek ways to respond to the widening gap between the inherited faith of the nation and its current practice, understanding and nurture of that faith?” asks the Revd Lynda Barley, Head of Research and Statistics for the Archbishops’ Council, in a booklet published today.

Churchgoing today, is the second in a series branded Time to Listen, which presents current research in an accessible way to help resource the Church’s mission in today’s society.

The research points to the emergence of Sunday as the only day for quality ‘family time’, when people of all ages have the chance to travel some distance to meet, and when non-custodial parents tend to be granted access rights to their children. “Sunday will always be at the heart of Christian patterns of worship,” stresses Lynda. In the book, she points out that “modern-day weekends are full with domestic and personal agendas” that combine to mean that Sunday services “present difficult choices for many and slowly they drift away from church attendance at these times.”

Lynda Barley points to the success witnessed by churches who are discovering that by scheduling services for late afternoon on Sundays, or on midweek evenings, they can attract significant numbers of worshippers. “We need to give permission to put energy into providing opportunities for worship that accommodate the different lifestyles in our neighbourhoods,” she concludes.

Following this logic, Lynda highlights examples of churches that have developed a ‘multi-congregational’ approach, offering a range of services that “meet with the neighbourhood rather than expecting people to come to them”: one vicar, for instance, holds two services on the day of the harvest supper - one traditional service and another for young families and those new to the church.

Lynda explains how current methods for counting church attendance, and the blossoming number of worship events taking place during weekdays, means that estimates of church attendance are usually grossly misrepresentative – “in reality, around one in six of Britain’s adults attend a church service at least once a month,” she argues.

The booklet also showcases a number of churches using innovative venues - such as a barge moored in London’s Docklands, a pub in Brighton or even a Devon Fish and Chip shop - to meet the need for flexible spaces that can help break down the apprehension that some may feel when approaching a more traditional church building.

Churchgoing today follows in the footsteps of Christian Roots, Contemporary Spirituality, published last month, in which Lynda examined how the task of communicating the Christian message has turned full circle, with churches increasingly turning to visual methods such as prayer stations and rosary beads to reacquaint communities with the basics of Christianity.

The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading, crystallises the questions that Lynda explores when he asks in his foreword: “Churchgoing is changing. It is changing whether we like it or not. The question remains: are we stubbornly going to fight a corner for a certain way of being church, or go with the flow of the Spirit and develop ways of worshipping that chime with our culture, and times and locations for services that fit better with demands of contemporary living?”


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