In the years prior to going to university I had been to church a handful of times and hated it. It never dawned on me that church had anything to offer. Whilst at University I began to argue with Christians and eventually came to the conclusion that they were right and I was wrong. I was convinced that Jesus was who he claimed to be as declared by his rising from the dead. Soon afterwards I was also persuaded that church was also part of the package and that I should get involved, even at the cost of playing rugby on a Sunday morning.
It took me a long while to feel at home in church culture but I persevered. The experience left me feeling that church should not just be for those brought up in it, but for those coming in from the outside like myself. When I felt called into church leadership over 20 years ago this was the biggest thing on my agenda.
Through different things that I read recently I have been reminded that this is still the case.
Christianity has now become a foreign language for very large numbers of the population and what goes on in church seems strange, if not alien. Until about 1960, what went on in church would have some resonance across the culture as a whole. We now have the third and fourth generation growing up since then for whom it is simply outside their world view. Failures that tend to be blamed on schools or parents simply reflect a rapid and massive change in the general culture. From the Times Monday 1 October 2012
I have also been impacted by a book, Clusters: Creative Mid-sized Missional Communities by Bob Hopkins. He said that across the UK as a whole around 20% of the population could be described as churched, either regular attendees or part of the fringe; a further 40% could be described as dechurched, meaning they used to go to church in the past but no longer attended. Half of these would be open to return if invited but for the other half their experience of church had left them closed to any thought of returning. The final 40% were totally unchurched, they had little or no experience of church, just like I had been in my youth.
In summary Hopkins broke down the population of the UK as –
20% open dechurched
20% closed dechurched
Hopkins makes the point that amongst younger people the percentage unchurched goes up considerably. In a multi-cultural, multi-faith town like Luton the percentage of unchurched would certainly be above the national average. The point Hopkins makes is that there are very few churches making any sort of impact amongst unchurched people. This means the church in the UK is relevant for less than half the population and unless things changed the percentage being reached will keep reducing.
I am now even more determined than ever to do all I can to help us communicate with the high percentage of people for whom Christianity is a foreign language and church feels alien. I want us to explore what it means for us to reach out relevantly to all the population of Luton, including the unchurched.
Questions to be considered.
- In what ways have you found that Christianity is a foreign language to people you are in contact with?
- How can we help people penetrate the alien culture of church?
- Jesus told the parable of the lost sheep, Luke 15v1-7, how does that apply in our situation?
WRITTEN BY TONY THOMPSON
Tony is an Elder at Hope Church Luton and part of the Leadership team.
He works full time for the church and is married to Anne and they have 2 sons.