"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!... Because our chief weapon is surprise!"
Some of Monty Python's most imitated characters, the Inquisitors have been impersonated by schoolchildren and pub bores alike for 40-odd years. But has anyone yet suggested they could be a model for church growth? Bear with me...
This week The Economist published the latest in a long, long line of articles about the renewal of the Church in the UK. It looked specifically at the Church of England and maps out what it describes as "unexpected," – namely that there are congregations in London which are growing, reaching out to their communities and aiming to replicate this outside of London.
It's not a bad article, and helpfully outlines some of the current trends as noted by Ian Paul. Its purpose is to tell readers that something interesting is happening in the Church. The secularisation thesis which has been taught as axiomatic for many years is actually under threat – in other words, the demise of the Church isn't a foregone conclusion.
The Economist is doing as most other major secular publications have done in the last 25 years. It's a form of apology. It almost says, 'sorry, we might have not got this right.' There are churches which are bucking the trend. There are churches which are growing, lively, filled with young people and actually making a positive difference in the world.
Those of us who wake up on a Sunday morning and head off to a lively and growing church find it the most natural and normal thing in the world. But most people in the UK are blissfully unaware of the warm welcome waiting for them, the engaging service they could attend, and the joyful community they could be part of.
The newspaper articles began in the early 90s. The Independent ran a piece in 1993, reporting on new life at St Paul's, Onslow Square. The reporter, apparently somewhat taken aback, noted that many gathered for a service were, "middle-class and overwhelmingly under 30." He was also surprised by their appearance. "There is hardly a sandal-wearer among them," we were assured.
The surprise continued apace. The New Statesman and The Spectator have written about the growth of the church planting movement and the Alpha Course, movements headed by Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), New Wine and other evangelical networks. That these pieces could barely contain their contempt doesn't really matter – they're united in their shock that churches are growing, reaching more people and engaging in the culture.
Even more sympathetic portraits like that in The Economist can't quite contain their surprise that there are churches which aren't fading away. As an Observer article from a few years ago described it, churches like HTB are surprising because they aim "to put Christianity unashamedly at the centre of modern living." Well, indeed.
To those of us on the inside, this may look strange. Churches which are growing, welcoming new people, engaging with culture, outward-facing and positive about the good news of Jesus are a startling phenomenon to those outside. And we're faced with a choice: we could feel annoyed by the media being slow on the uptake, or we could use it for good.
Because of the low level of church attendance in the UK, the element of surprise is now entirely in our favour. The majority of British people simply don't really know what churchgoing actually involves. Another New Statesman article articulated it well. "Not only do the British not go to church," it said, "they also don't seem to have a clue what Christianity is. A Reader's Digest poll last year found that only 48 per cent of us know that Easter marks the death and resurrection of Christ."
Those who do have actual experience of churchgoing probably only have hazy memories from childhood or fictitious accounts from popular culture of churches. These churches are either cold, boring and irrelevant or well-meaning but incompetent. Neither seem worth bothering with.
The hapless congregation featured in the BBC sitcom Rev provides brilliant comedy and there are genuine moments of grace and inspiration in the show. Oh, and it's funny. But ultimately it backs up the secularisation thesis. The Church is dying and a few well-meaning people sitting freezing in a decaying church building aren't going to change that.
But as many of us know, the reality can be very different. Yes, the Church faces an existential crisis. Yes, as The Economist article articulates, "The proportion of people calling themselves Christian fell from 72 per cent in 2001 to 59 per cent in 2011. Those saying they have no religion rose from 15 per cent to 25 per cent in that period... The number of churchgoing Anglicans fell by 12 per cent, and in 2013 stood at 1m. Some 19m baptised Anglicans do not attend church."
While acknowledging these facts, we can see signs of hope. As the article states, London is leading the way, "Weekly participation in Christian services in the capital has grown by 16 per cent since 2005."
While we don't want to emulate the comedy cardinals of Monty Python and leap out on unsuspecting people, the element of surprise can be our best friend here. If people have stereotypes about church as cold, boring, irrelevant, unwelcoming, cliquey, and so on, then we have the answer. Many of our churches simply explode that myth.
Let's be clear and honest with ourselves. Most of our friends and colleagues have no idea about how great our churches are. How surprised they would actually be by some of the small, but important things on offer.
A warm welcome. A decent cup of coffee. A chat with normal, nice people from all walks of life (who may or may not be wearing sandals). We have music which might confound expectations. We look out for each other's wellbeing in a way which is profoundly counter-cultural. Far from being cold, boring and out of touch, we offer the chance to be part of an institution which cares about its local community, and ultimately, an opportunity to experience the love of God.
This last point may be the most surprising thing of all. That despite the cynical age in which we live, we believe we can offer people an environment in which they can meet God and explore the meaning of life. Jesus said He would build His Church and the gates of hell wouldn't prevail. If we believe that, then we should never be surprised when out of the grim reality of catastrophic decline, some green shoots of renewal begin to appear in the Church. But this ability for our churches to surprise with their warmth, hospitality, generosity, community and yes, even fun, could be one of the easisest and best ways to confound the critics and welcome back the missing millions.