Britain’s Church Mission Society has just appointed a senior staff member to promote a ‘paradigm shift’ in how we do church in this country. The church training agency, Administry (and others) are running events on new forms of church. These are just two examples of how a new approach to evangelism is creeping up the Christian agenda. ‘Emerging church ’is becoming fashionable.

And not before time. In the 1980s the number of people attending an English church on a typical Sunday dropped by 13%. In the ‘90s the figure plummeted by 22%. If the rate of decline continues to accelerate at the same pace, by 2016 less than 1.0% of the population would be in church on Sunday. “Just one generation, and we would indeed have bled to death.” Peter Brierley, The Tide is Running Out, Christian Research, 2000, pp.27-8.

You might say that to extrapolate those figures is statistically irresponsible. Things could get better – but they could also get worse!

An it-must-fit-me world

Why is church such a faint blip on most people’s radar screen? Part of the answer is that society is changing. Organisations are learning to personalise their relationships with people. Gone is the age of mass society when individuals were treated in a standardised way. Whether at work or in the shopping mall, organisations are tailoring themselves to individuals or specific groups of people. “Your mortgage should fit you like a glove, not a straitjacket” an insurance company recently advertised. In the United States Volvo launched its latest model on the Net. This model claims to be available in one million variations according to the buyer’s colour choices, interior preferences, engine dictates and extra feature requirements. As in so many ways, the Internet epitomises the world we are entering. The more people who use it, the more each person can find exactly what they want. We are moving from an off-the-peg to a tailor-made society, and it is affecting how people think. There is a growing expectation that life must fit people exactly.“Well, you know, church is no longer the same. The minister has changed. (It doesn’t fit me any more.) Time to move on.” This attitude, already widespread, is becoming more deeply entrenched. We are entering the ‘it-must-fit-me world’.

Standardised church in a personalised world

Christians will have serious reservations about this. Yet the attitude is permeating ‘Western’ society and the church must come to terms with it. A culture that expects organisations to treat individuals in a personalised way will not respond well to standardised church. More and more people expect to be listened to and treated as individuals. They do not want to be shoe-horned into a mould. They are put off by pre-packaged church. They want church to be built round them – to respect their way of doing things and to respond to it.

Two people in their 20s attended Alpha, the phenomenally successful introductory course to Christianity that has been a landmark for many. They had never been to church, but they loved Alpha. So they went to the follow-up. After two weeks, they stormed out. “We’re not coming back!” they complained. “Last week you told us to come to church on Sunday. This week you’ve told us to stop sleeping together. Now we know that you are no different to any other organisation. You simply want us to come to your thing on your terms!” Whatever was actually said and however well intentioned, it gave the impression “We ’ve got a package here. You come and fit in.” Increasingly, that approach will not work. People do not want to be squeezed into someone else’s church. If they are interested at all, they want church to be built round them – addressing their agenda, allowing them to grow into faith at their pace.

This does not mean that people cannot be challenged with the gospel: the challenge must be tailored to where individuals are on their spiritual journey.

The community of faith needs to uphold Christian values, but recognise that not all these values will take root in everyone’s life at the same time. “This is what the church has traditionally taught about marriage. Is this an issue that the Holy Spirit wants to address in your life at this time? You decide.” It is an approach modelled by Christ himself. His use of parables avoided a “This is what you must believe” approach in favour of allowing his hearers to explore what the parables meant and reach their own conclusions.

Emerging church

Instead of “you come to us”, we need a “we ’ll come to you” approach. Jesus came to the world - to transform it. The church must follow his example.

For example, many churches are in touch with people who do not come to church – a toddlers group perhaps. They adopt a stepping-stones approach, starting with a Christian video on parenting perhaps, then an Alpha supper, then the Alpha course and then, hopefully, the final step into church. But many people fall off the stones en route. So why not build a congregation around the group instead, starting with whatever expressions of spirituality already exist, exploring these, providing space for people to encounter God ‘in their own way’, listening to people’s reactions and using these as a jumping off point to discuss aspects of Christian belief? Almost certainly it will be a slow journey into faith – but Christ’s work with his disciples was not especially quick either! Eventually baptisms might take place in the group, communion could be celebrated there and the group would gradually acquire the characteristics of a congregation. Instead of standardised church, this would be church - planting around people - where they are, at a time that suits them and in a style that respects their culture.

It would be radically different to many recent forms of church planting. Sometimes a church plant has had exactly the same ‘genetic code’ as the parent church, when the people it was seeking to reach were very different. Perhaps the parent church had a style of worship that was geared to a middle class population, whereas the church plant was in a council estate. Not infrequently a church plant has done things differently to its sending church because the core was dissatisfied with what they were getting. The approach has been tailored to what the core want rather than to the non-churchgoers they were seeking to reach. Both these approaches have ended with disappointment – “Why are we failing to attract those who don’t come to church?” One reason is that church has been built round the desires of existing churchgoers instead of being seeped in the culture of those who don’t attend regularly. Sacrificial mission involves taking seriously the ‘go to’ mandate of Matthew 28:19, rather than expecting people to come to us on our terms.

Is this realistic? It is already happening. One Yorkshire church went to the children. It planted a congregation at 3.30pm on Monday afternoons for children at the local school and those collecting them. Up to 100 people attend that family communion. Hardly any of them went to church before. A church in south Wales is starting a congregation mainly for people who have completed Alpha but will not come to traditional, standardised church.

Church is going to them, enabling them to worship in a style they connect with.

A London church finds out what newspaper, for example, the Nigerian community reads. It then advertises, “Are you new to London? Would you like a Nigerian meal and to meet other Nigerians?” Venue details and a contact number are provided. That becomes a gateway to a small Bible study group, an expression of church for Nigerians – going to people and forming church round them.Congregations specifically for teenagers and young people are mushrooming all round the country.

A first step

One suburban church has luncheon club for older people. Around a 80 attend regularly, the great majority of whom do not attend church. So they introduced a discoverers’ bible study group, which now attracts around 30 people. It might be tempting to encourage those 30 to come to church on Sunday as a next step into faith. But for many of them Sunday worship would feel strange and unfamiliar, they would not recognise many faces and the time might not be convenient. So why not introduce a little more worship into the bible study, incorporate a regular communion and allow it to evolve into a congregation in its own right? Teach their members to tithe, and they would soon be able to afford a part- time minister! A gathering would have become a congregation – church for a particular group of people, at a time that suited them and in style that they felt comfortable with.

In many parts of the country now church leaders are meeting regularly to pray. Some are asking, “What is God calling us to next?” Part of the answer may be some form of social action. But it might also involve working together to plant new forms of church around people who are disconnected from existing church. In quite a few places churches are collaborating to plant teenage and youth congregations. Might it make sense for churches in one or two areas to hold a joint Alpha course? The aim might be to have 100 people start the course, with perhaps 50 completing it. Instead of inviting these 50 into mainstream church, which many may find a step too far, the Alpha leader might say to them, “Some of you have come into faith, others of you are still looking, but nearly all of you have reservations about existing church. So why don ’t we learn together how to do church, in a way that is true to Scripture but also connects with the contemporary world? Tell us what the issues are on your agenda, and we’ll see what the Bible has to say about them. We’ll travel the journey together, learning from one another and see where God leads us.” If churches in an area ran an Alpha course on these lines each year, then in the first year they might ask a Baptist minister to take the group on, in year two an Anglican, in year three an Independent church leader and so on! These are just two examples – there are many others – of how one might start to do church differently.

But is this fragmenting church

If church is to connect with emerging society, it needs to connect with the fragments of society. That will make church look fragmented. Would that be the end of the world? Not necessarily. First church has always been fragmented. In some Anglican churches working class people used to come in the evening and the middle classes in the morning!

Secondly, fragmentation can be empowering. If you mix everyone up, who goes to the top? Nearly always it is the better educated and the better-off.

Some working class churches have seen more affluent people move in, perhaps because it was a ‘successful’ church. A few years later, some of the original members have drifted away because it no longer felt the same. Unwittingly the newcomers have imposed their own way of doing things,and the less educated have felt alienated. In our fallen world, letting different groups of people do things in their own way can release leadership and other gifts that may remain hidden if everyone is mixed together.

Thirdly, and most important, the goal of unity in the New Testament was not to bring everyone together in one place. New Testament Christians well understood that their unity was in Christ. They sought to express this unity by keeping in touch with each other (for example Paul’s letters), praying for each other, supporting each other when in need (financial support for the Jerusalem church for instance) and holding one another to account (Paul asked the church leaders in Jerusalem to approve his missionary strategy). The church today best expresses its unity when it behaves in a similar way.

As it does this, people who come into faith in company with one group of people will become aware of other Christians worshipping in other contexts.

They may meet them for example through services that occasionally join-up congregations in their local church, through a joint-service with other churches in town, by going to Spring Harvest or on a pilgrimage together, or by going to a new church because they have moved house. In our ‘network society’ no one belongs to just one network, and that will be true of new Christians as well: few will belong to one isolated Christian network.

Emerging church and traditional church

New forms of church are beginning to emerge alongside traditional church. It is not a question of emerging church or traditional church. We need both.

There will always be people who feel comfortable in church as we have it now - many Cathedral congregations are growing. But alongside today’s church we must plant tomorrow’s church – going to people where they are, at times that suit them, in styles that express their culture (not our’s) and allowing them to travel spiritually at their pace. This raises all sorts of practical and theological questions that need to be addressed urgently. However, unless we answer those questions and embrace emerging forms of church, tomorrow will be no more than a history of today.