A Church Longing To Rise Again [PART 1]
The virtual church’s open door
The time has come for us in the Church of Scotland to be completely radical and reconnect with our core calling which is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” COVID-19 has changed the spiritual landscape nationally and globally. There is growing evidence that a substantial group of the public are searching for spiritual guidance and leadership. In an article in the Guardian on 3 May 2020, Harriet Sherwood highlighted the large number of people logging into online worship services. She also pointed out that a high percentage of those watching would appear to have been new to church attendance. According to a survey one out of five had said they had never gone to church. It is surely our role as followers of Jesus to help others encounter and experience the ‘glory of God.’ The question is: so how do we do that?
A new reformation in worship
At the heart of what it means to glorify God must surely be an overwhelming desire to express gratitude and thanksgiving to God for all that we have received from his hand. Public worship is only part of that expression, but for many it is an important part. To be authentic it must surely draw upon all aspects of our lives in order to offer to God our collective acknowledgement that all we have and are comes from him.
Public worship has to be able to display and express this gratitude in such a way that everyone is able to participate, including the newcomers to online worship. Those constructing and creating the content of public worship need to be aware of the feelings and desires and longings of those who attend services, and that is not an easy task. Perhaps it means the end of an era in which one person chooses the prayers the hymns and the style of worship.
If we are to engage with a new group of the public who we want to worship with us, we will have to listen to them and understand the ways they express themselves as 21st century “techno beings”. We will require to discover very quickly, how we can offer alternative styles of worship under the umbrella of Church of Scotland.
It is interesting to note that a critic of the Church of England’s national digital strategy highlights the fact that while they succeed in promoting a high profile digital presence in 2018 during Easter and Christmas having been influenced by the supermarket marketing strategy, the experience and expectation they promoted and marketed was quite different when the consumer attended the local church branch. This meant while they had record attendances on these occasions those attending were not converted into regular worshippers. The lesson to be learned was better to have an authentic online worshipping presence than an online marketing strategy to promote projects and programmes that may not be taken up by the local church leadership. If we are going to promote i.e. 'Back to Church’ as a national marketing idea then local church has to be flexible enough to engage with a new kind of worshipper. Under lockdown we need to be planning these new worship opportunities now so when the lockdown is lifted we are able to minister to a searching public. This is the age of longing for more.
Emotions are part of 21st century living
Never before have we had people across the generations so in touch with their emotions and longing and willing to express them in a public manner. The death of Princess Diana could be seen as a watershed in collective public emotion. Literally hundreds of thousands of people expressed their feelings and their grief in a way that had never been recognised or observed in the UK before. The most recent wave of emotion can be seen in the way that people are reacting to the selflessness of the NHS workers. People out in the streets clapping and playing music expressing their gratitude for what they see as sacrificial service.
I believe the Church of Scotland with our rather stiff verbal Sunday worship liturgies has up until now been unable to recognise or has been unwilling to admit that what we offer as public worship for the 21st century no longer connects with generations of people who moved out of formality into a more informal and emotionally shaped social space. We are living among a generation that loves music and art. A generation where communication and performance has become part of their DNA. It is not that people are less interested in God. It is that people no longer wish to attend worship events that feel disconnected from their reality and spiritual search.
Creating connecting spaces
As long as the Church of Scotland inhabits the formal faded grandeur of Victorian buildings —which continue to dictate the style and content of worship — or choose to work out of cold damp uninspiring 1960s new builds — abandoning their congregations in the process — membership will continue to fall and within five years we will be left with a handful of faithful but forlorn Jesus followers.This reality has been grasped by the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland and they have been advocating a policy of well equipped spaces in the right places . See this interesting article submitted to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 2019 https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/58400/General_Trustees_-_Well_equipped_spaces_in_the_right_places.pdf
Of course this means that congregations will require to vacate some buildings in order to allow the new and well equipped spaces to emerge. This will be the test of our radical spirit. Are we willing to let go of the past in order that the Holy Spirit can begin to shape our future? This change of heart will require the leadership of ministers and elders as well as the congregations. The truth is that often congregations are more radical than their leadership. Over the past years I have been detecting a frustration in many congregations, as people see falling numbers and long for their Sunday experience of worship to be more relevant to how they feel.
A theology of longing
We are living in an age where people are longing to worship God in Spirit and in truth. Sometimes it is valuable to deconstruct in order to reconstruct and build for the future. Often deconstruction is all about longing. I think there is a great deal more theological and practical thinking that can be carried out to unpack a theology of longing.
In part 2 and 3 of this blog I will discuss longing, reconstruction and parallels between 1st and 21st Century Church.
Very Rev Albert Bogle, Minister of Sanctuary First