This is something fascinating going on in Britain (and, I suspect, in the rest of Europe and the Western world):
Society is relying more on the social contribution of churches
Church attendance is declining
Churches are discovering that social action, church growth and discipleship belong inextricably together, and together open the way forward for a season of fresh growth, relevance and impact for the Church.
It is a quiet, slow-burn, patient revolution, my favourite type. It is not centrally organized, but spontaneously has arisen all over the nation. It developed through a decade of austerity and was shocked into further action by the pandemic. I think in a career of observing church trends in the UK, it is the most encouraging thing I have ever seen. It builds on and with other trends in the UK that have moved the needle: the rise of beautiful worship; the flourishing of the alpha course; the development of church-planting churches, networks and movements. There is probably a bunch of dying that the Church still needs to do, but perhaps for the first time in a generation, or longer, there are railway tracks heading into a bright future, and the Church is riding on them.
Here’s a quote from a report produced by the Theos thinktank in 2020, just as the worst of the pandemic was being felt:
Over the past decade, the contribution that the Church of England makes to society through its social action has increased, reflecting an increase in the demand and expectation for it. At the same time, church attendance in the country has continued to decline; by most key metrics, attendance at Church of England services fell between 15% and 20% from 2009-2019. This is the paradox facing the Church of England in 2020: the national church of a nation which is increasingly reliant on its social action and yet less and less spiritually connected to it.1
The report noted that ‘the Church grows in number and depth when it is present in and connected to its local area, which may be manifested through its social action.’ Its longevity and presence make it well placed. Hospitality and generosity are significant. And ‘participation in social action can also offer a practical route into faith for people who weren’t previously part of the church community.’2
Exciting stuff. And it doesn’t involve massaging church statistics until something positive is squeezed out. It’s everywhere. I see it in the Christmas letters I receive from friends. I see it in my own church which, in other ways, is not exactly a picture of glowing health. I see it elsewhere in Cambridge. And I read it in reports like this one.
Four qualities of spiritual revival have recurred throught the centuries. Revivals are:
Popular and populist
Transformative, calling for conversions
Devotional – calling forth relationships of love
I’m grateful to Christian History magazine (episode 149) to codify these things and helping us to see that revival in those terms popped up not just among Protestants but at many points in medieval Christianity. It is, of course, exactly what we need today. And (see the two previous posts in this optimistic Advent season), perhaps it is happening.
I suppose you can get people presents that are other-than-books.
But why would you?
Justin Brierley: The surprising rebirth of belief in God
Justin Brierley is as good as anyone observing the fickle winds of fashion in thought.
For many years he hosted the podcast Unbelievable which moderated match-ups between atheists and Christians. Moderated is the right word, since Brierley kept the peace and ensured, most times, the conversations were fruitful. You can’t help thinking that if the BBC had the sense to match their reach, they would have headhunted him years ago, a brilliant natural broadcaster with unshowy erudition. Still.
This book takes us through some of what he’s learnt from his ringside seat watching thought-leaders’ wrestle. Mostly it’s a careful account of the disintegration of New Atheist teaching, and some notes on what’s replacing it. He finds a new respect for theism; a renewed respect for the Bible; and some of the people he’s met has, to their surprise, either become committed Christians or thoughtful and sympathetic observers of the Christian faith. It’s a fascinating contemporary summary, leveraging his superpower of finding influential thinkers and inviting them onto his show.
If you, like me, wander into bookshops and have been occasionally surprised by finding sympathy for the Christian faith in unexpected places, this book gives a comprehensive and better researched summary of the shifting weather. It’s super and (for the Christian) heartening.
Justin Brierley offers three exhortations to the church near the end of the book – three things to cling tightly to: 1. Faith and reason 2. The mystery – the Christian faith quickly wanders into a dark woodland of paradox, the beyond-understanding, the ancient, the gnarly, all accompanied by the sound of worship (‘Church bells beyond the stars heard’ George Herbert wrote). Some of those turning to the faith enjoy all this, much more than they do Christian pseudo-rock concerts, or people ‘being discipled’ through a short course of study. 3. A forgiving, accepting community, a powerful force, now that social media has made witch-burning popular again in the outside world.
Super book for anyone wanting to keep up. Grab a copy.
This is proper, hard SF, where the plot is driven by science, deeply thought out, a gripping kind of scientific whodunnit, though the question is not ‘what did the murderer do?’ so much as ‘what did the laws of physics come up with next?’
It’s really good, and free of any lit. fic. overhead or pretensions, just a great story, enthrallingly told, for you to eat through without stopping, like a bag of salted peanuts. Loved it.
This book has very little to do with the theme of this blog, except, perhaps, at a stretch, the quest to make stuff beautiful. Makes a great present though for a certain type of person, and you’ll know someone.
This book is just enormous geeky fun. It’s all about the fonts that surround us every day, their history, their designers, some of the fashions and controversies. It is true that after reading it, you’ll never look at printed words the same way again. I started, for instance, noticing what an unhealthy, disjointed font-nightmare a hospital corridor is. The same goes for the average British high street. But when people curate and corrall and design fonts, and put them together on a page, yummy.
I took ages to finish it, and (if I had a shelf for this purpose) would probably file it as ‘good loo reading.’
All of us know someone who’ll like this — the same people who read Lynne Truss’s ‘Shoots, eats and leaves’ for example.
I gave it four stars instead of five because, I mean, it’s quite a lot about the fiddly bits on the end of letters.
This wonderful book gets under the skin of what happened to the Arab and Muslim world in the past 40 years and gives a voice to the writers, lawyers, media types, thinkers, critics, imams and others who resisted the ‘black wave’ of religion-shrouded revolutionary terror.
Kim Ghattas, a Lebanese, and therefore heir to those who watch (and often trade with) the great tidal forces sweeping around them, sees 1979 as the point the Arab and Muslim worlds collectively departed from their pluralistic senses. That year was the year of the Islamic revolution in Iran; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which led to jihad (sponsored by America and funnelled through Pakistan); and the attempted takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by religious zealots.
Out of this came the breakdown of a sleepy, plural, varied, tolerant Islam and its replacement with state terror (in Iran), the rise of the Wahabhis in Saudi, and these overlapped with the Islamism that Zia ul-Haq was imposing on Pakistan, to that country’s loss. Out of all that came the sprawling Saudi-Iranian rivalry with each outdoing the other in Islamicness; assassinations, war, and Sunnis and Shias killing each other: Muslim shall make war on Muslim. Ripples of it spread through the West: book burnings on English streets and the carnage of the twin towers. But the real churn was elsewhere.
It’s an astonishing story, and an astonishingly sad one. What a strange time we have lived through! Deeply researched, brilliantly told, and in my reading as good and influential (though with a different scope) to classic books like Albert Hourani’s The Arab World. The book’s impact comes from the way the story is told and the links followed, and from the fact (as it lays out) that any number of people resisted and yet were too small and too isolated to stop themselves being drowned or exiled by the Black Wave.
Perhaps the Arab and Muslim world is weary of war and the wave is ebbing. How sad though it all is and was. This book is a trusty guide.
Beware middle age. You become aware the world has changed around you, you are no longer at the cultural centre of things, and you attach moral weight to the change. You haven’t just grown old–blithely ploughing your land into a deep rut while the world stayed fertile and flexible–you think it’s got worse. The country is going to the dogs.
I don’t entirely believe this. I rather prefer Dickens’ formula, that the good old days, like now, were the best of times … the worst of times.
But surely some things get worse, even as other things get better, as the erratic lighthouse-beam of the world’s attention lights stuff up?
One of the things that may have got worse is the fraying of the social fabric. Commentator and cultural critic (or, OK, journalist on a deadline) David Brooks wrote a fascinating article for The Atlantic1 in which he tried to answer a couple of questions:
Why have Americans become so sad? – he points out a few statistics, rising rates of depression and loneliness, increasing lack of friends, and ‘persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.’
Why have Americans become so mean? He cites restauranteurs and medical staff, for example, facing never-before-seen levels of rudeness, cruelty, and abuse from the general public. Himself a recent, adult convert to Christ, he says, ‘we’re enmeshed in some sort of emotional, relational and spiritual crisis.’
Many reasons have been offered (as he points out): the rise of social media; the decline of community organizations; the toppling of the pyramid that had male, white, hetrosexuals at the apex; and the high levels of poverty and insecurity after we baby boomers bought all the houses, snaffled all the good pensions and left the national finances neck-deep in the red.
Brooks doesn’t dispute any of these, but he points to a deeper cause. ‘We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration … We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.’ His solution, if I’m reading him right, is education.
He may be right. But (even accepting his diagnosis) I’m not so sure. My problem is that I’m not sure that ‘moral education’ actually works. I rather think (and maybe I have the apostle Paul on my side here) that any amount of moral instruction only makes us more creatively sneaky at finding outlets for our evil hearts. Paul himself knew all kinds of law, he had moral instruction from his nose to his toes, but his true nature still leaked out as pride, hypocrisy, cold-heartedness, snobbishness and self-righteousness. My reading of the gospels is that Jesus found the Pharisees, moral crusaders whether you asked them or not, much harder to bear with than the ordinary sinners who drank too much or slept around. The Pharisees’ collective A+ in moral education played to their low cunning and monstrous smugness.
But if it’s not education, what? I think the answer is love. I would argue that loving behaviour, like many other things, travels down human networks. The kind or courteous person in the workplace changes the workplace. The generous act spawns further generous acts. Human goodness spreads. It’s not so much ‘education’ as lived-out loving decency that exerts a soft pressure on those who receive it.
I have heard that one of William Wilberforce’s aims in life was ‘to make goodness fashionable’, and I think it is true the one person’s behaviour can eventually, via a long and winding road, change the culture. There are many examples of this. For example, I have worked with legal professionals and judges for more than 20 years. I have never seen even the faintest suggestion of a bribe. I remember the horror at my son’s school when word got out that a parent (not from a British culture) had offered a teacher money to smooth the path for a child. It was a scandal roughly on a scale of someone exposing themselves in the playground. That is not to claim my own culture is especially good, just that in the matter of bribery in those two instances, it was unthinkable and inconsciable. That’s culture. Integrity (in this narrow area in these isolated cultural examples) has become fashionable.
Or take sport. In Rugby Union, the only person who can question a referee’s decision is the team captain, and they can only make a polite enquiry. In soccer, players surround the referee and harangue them. There are two different cultures. Maybe one day soccer players will be as polite to match officials as rugby players are today; or maybe one day rugby players will be as rude as soccer players are today. I suspect whichever way any of this changes, it will be because some influential people did it first and in some mysterious way their behaviour became fashionable and normalized within the culture.
The Christian church changed the brutal Roman culture; it became unappealing to watch people being eaten by lions. The @metoo movement addressed and changed the laddish culture of the ‘noughties. What was done then is no longer accepted now. I don’t think it was education that did this; somehow it was social pressure tied up with love.
Interesting. Reminds me of Paul’s description of the Philippians, whom he instructed to ‘become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”[c] Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.’ (Philippians 2:15)
More about the teaching of Walter Wink, as mentioned last week, in his book The powers that be, which was a later summary of earlier work.
Wink teaches that every institution possesses an ‘outer, physical manifestation’ and ‘an inner spirituality, corporate culture or collective personality’ (p24) and combined they correspond to what the New Testament called ‘powers’, which were a tangible part of life back in New Testament times. Materialism has slanted our impression of them, but perhaps they have not gone away.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12).
For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him (Colossians 1:12).
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers … will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).
Are these ‘powers’ good or bad? It is customary in my part of the church to think of them (or at least the spiritual components) as ‘bad’, spiritual remnants perhaps of an original fall that led to the fall of some spirits into evil; the same worldview as can be found in the Bible and which John Milton used in Paradise Lost. And it is true that Jesus is never recorded as coming across an evil being that he wished to redeem. He apparently wished to expel all of them from his good creation.
In Wink’s view, however, the powers are:
He argues that:
These three statements must be held together, for each by itself is not only untrue but downright mischievous. We cannot affirm governments or universities or businesses as good unless we recognize at the same time that they are fallen. We cannot face their oppressiveness unless we remember that they are also a part of God’s good creation. And reflection on their creation and fall will seem to legitimate these Powers and blast any hope for change unless we assert, at the same time, that these Powers can and must be redeemed. But focus on their redemption will lead to utopian disillusionment unless we recognize that their transformation takes place within the limits of the fall.
Wink, op. cit., p 32
Whether or not the Powers can be redeemed (or merely expelled), the material, earthly institutions certainly are created, fallen, and can be redeemed. At the moment this is within the limits prescribed by our current fallen world; in the future it will be fully so, as part of New Creation.
This is eye-opening stuff:
Institutions have a spiritual character as well as a material form.
Institutions are good, fallen, and capable of a degree of redemption.
They will be fully redeemed at the so-called eschaton, the full arrival of the New Creation.
How can the Powers be opposed? How can institutions be redeemed, or at least cleaned up a bit, capturing more of their divine vocation?
I have to skip over a large and brilliant part of his analysis here but the central understanding is that violent overthrow won’t do it. All violent overthrow does is replace one system of spirit-fueled domination with another. A revolution is rightly named: it’s just the turning of the same wheel. What do ‘work’ (and again I am oversimplifying) are the things Jesus taught so directly. Turn the other cheek. Hand over all your clothes if someone takes your cloak. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hurt you. Feed and water your enemies. You want to lead? Be a servant. You want to line up with God’s rule? Be a child. Jesus himself entered Jerusalem on a donkey, not a charger. He won the day by going to his death like a lamb to the slaughter.
The aim is not conquest, but relationship: humanizing the oppressor, so that oppressors are themselves liberated from being oppressed by their own oppressive behaviour: ‘today, salvation has come to this house.’ These same acts also restore dignity and agency to the victim.
That’s how we ‘win’. And the winning may not be seen in this life, or certainly only partly seen, but it is putting a foothold in eternity, it is filling up our storerooms in heaven, it is investing in the future.
In his striking and unusual book, the late theologian Walter Wink writes this:
This book is unashamedly about things spiritual. It assumes that spiritual reality is at the heart of everything, from photons to supernovas, from a Little League baseball team to Boeing Aircraft. It sees spirit– the capacity to be aware of and responsive to God –at the core of every institution, every city, every nation, every corporation, every place of worship … [It] celebrates a divine reality that pervades every part of our existence.
Walter Wink, The powers that be, 1998, Galilee Doubleday, p 13
Wink points out that ‘Latin American liberation theology made one of the first efforts to reinterpret the “principalities and powers” — which occur naturally in New Testament writing — ‘not as disembodied spirits inhabiting the air, but as institutions, structures and systems … Powers such as a lumberyard or a city government possess an outer, physical manifestation (buildings, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, corporate culture or collective personality. The Powers are simultaneously an outer, visible structure and an innner, spiritual reality’ (p24).
This is striking and unusual stuff. As Wink goes on to point out, when it comes to ‘Powers and principalities’, ‘fundamentalists treat the Powers as actual beings in the air … and secularists deny that this spiritual dimension even exists’ (p26).
The elegance of this outlook is that it roots the New Testament worldview into everyday structures of injustice and unrighteousness (or indeed structures of justice and righteouness). So by doing battle against, say, injustice, you are actually resisting spiritual powers, for which the gospel offers weapons and tools.
For example, Ephesians 6 says:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Ephesians 6:10-12 NIVUK
This scripture makes a lot of sense in contexts where spiritual forces are rife and obvious, where local industry manufactures charms and amulets, and where you can buy services like spells, curses, protection from the evil eye and love potions. I have worked with many missionaries who have spent time in those contexts and found New Testament-type solutions beneficial and fruitful.
It’s a lot harder though, in secular and materialist contexts, to know quite what to do with all these scriptures.
Wink offers a further insight. These powers, he claims, become fallen and demonic when they pursue ‘a vocation other than the one for which God created’ them (p29). So, calling an institution to be just and and upright and to fulfill the purpose God intends for it, is not just a matter of (for example) campaigning but is also a spiritual conflict requiring the kind of spiritual weaponry that the gospel offers. This is because the institution involved has a spiritual face as well as a material one.
This makes a lot of sense.
Ir explains why in the book of Revelation, letters are written to ‘the angel’ of each of the seven Asia Minor churches — not to the pastor, or the leadership team, or the congregation, but to the spiritual reality, the culture, that they together contribute to and embody.
It explains why in the same book, earthly realities are described withthe imaginative imagery of dragons, beasts and whores, a spiritual view of human institutions.
It helps make sense of the Beatitudes, which sees human attitudes and behaviours as having potency as spiritual weapons: Are you spiritually bankrupt? You’re blessed: yours is the reign of heaven (Matthew 5:3, my paraphrase).
Here’s his summary:
Evil is not just personal but structural and spiritual. It is not simply the result of human actions, but the consequences of huge systems over which no individual has full control. Only by confronting the spirituality of an institution and its physical manifestation can the total structure be transformed.
Just finished an illuminating book called ‘Recovery’ by practicising GP Dr Gavin Francis. I am drawn back again to the idea of healing (I was in hospital when I wrote this) and really enjoyed how this book taught me things I’d previously groped towards. Some snippets:
We fall ill in ways that our profoundly influenced by our past experiences and expectations, and the same can be said of our paths to recovery. (p8)
Green and growing
He talks of the difference Florence Nightingale made in the Crimea, how hospitals should have ‘the proper use of fresh air, light, warmth, cleanliness, quiet, and the proper selection and administration of diet’. (p 13, quoting Nightingale’s own 1859 Notes on Nursing). Windows should look out something green and growing. After her arrival in 1854, the rate of soldiers dying from their wounds fell from 1 in 2 or 1 in 3, to 1 in 50
But in changing times and with new drugs something has been lost:
It’s not possible for me now, as a GP, to admit a frail, elderly patient somewhere for nursing care and convalescence alone – the hospital gates don’t open unless there’s a medical diagnosis, and a plan in place that prioritises getting the patient out again as soon as possible (p15).
You might not find ‘convalescence’ or ‘recovery’ as a heading in the medical textbooks but you will find ‘post-viral fatigue’… Long-term symptoms from viral infections will be different for everyone, but can include varying amounts of breathlessness, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, mood changes, insomnia, weight-loss, exhaustion, muscle weakness, joint stiffness and flashbacks.
All these are to be considered normal – not evidence that recovery has stalled or is going (p20) into reverse.
He suggests ‘pacing’ as the route forward – not the boom and bust cycle of activity and exhaustion, but steady efforts, frequent rests, small meals, not doing much for an hour after a meal, getting fresh air, sitting down a lot, avoiding exerting. With boom and bust, your world narrows; with careful pacing, it slowly widens.
Work aids recovery
He talks about the world of sick-notes, and that doctors are better coaches than judges. ‘Many of the patients I sign off from the obligation to find a job could undoubtedly work in some capacity, at something, if support were available to help them do it… Work aids recovery in all sorts of ways… If I could sign my patients up to a supportive back-to-work scheme, rather than simply signing them off sick, I would‘ (p27)
A misfortune whose cost should be shared
He notes Aneurin Bevin’s championing of the idea that illness is ‘neither an indulgence for which people have to pay nor an offence for which they should be penalised but a misfortune the cost of which should be shared by the community’ (p 29. Bevan was borrowing his ideas from T H Marshall, a sociologist.)