8 Years of Changing Religious Culture?

Faith has been a central topic within this blog and as I spend some time reflecting on the posts it would be wrong not to include a post on this. I want to see what, if anything, can be seen about the changing nature of religious culture in the UK from what I’ve blogged and from the books, conferences,talks and websites which informed those blogs.

My blogging birth in October 1994 was at a time when I was taking some time out of church, unsure whether I was going to return to institutional church or not. I discovered this blogging community as a result of searching around for links which might help me feel connected whilst moving out of the evangelical subculture. There was, as I have already explained this week, some element of this related to the journey I was on of reconciling my faith and my sexuality but it went beyond this. I had come to a point where the songs being sung and traditional evangelical messages I was hearing felt in conflict with the theology I was developing. I would go to Greenbelt and experience the worship / listen to the theology being taught and then find it very difficult to go back to the evangelical, guarded charismatic, church where I increasingly felt like the heretic in the corner. It was only when my wonderfully understanding minister passed me a copy of Alan Jamieson’s seminal text A Churchless Faith to read that I understood that what I was experiencing was part of something larger going on, although at that point I couldn’t place it within a wider framework.

The post-evangelical discussion had been going on since the mid 1990′s (Dave Tomlinson explains how the Post Evangelical was born in 1993 and published in 1995 on his website) although to some extent it can be traced back earlier – as with all of these things there is a strand which can be followed back through history if you look closely enough. The roots of this movement were firmly planted in 1980′s evangelicalism which in turn was highly influenced by a range of things which happened in the 1960′s and had led to the housechurches and new streams. (Rob Warner’s work is good to read if you want to understand the wider evangelical culture which this movement grew up in).

A decade on when I was encountering Jamieson’s, Tomlinson’s and Gordon Lynch’s work the trickle down effect had happened as the books had been published, the websites had started to appear and the talks had become a strong rhetoric. At the same time there were a range of small scale worship initiatives had emerged which were seen to be offering ‘alternative’ or alt. worship or just space to discuss faith in different spaces which were more culturally relevant. In the UK many of these were influenced in some way by the ill fated Nine O’Clock Service in Sheffield as Matthew Guest explains in this paper  ‘The Post-Evangelical Emerging Church: Innovations in New Zealand and the UK published in the International Journey for the study of the Christian Church in 2006 which was  jointly authored with Steve Taylor. In the US something similar slightly different was happening. To understand the full picture Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger’s book Emerging Churches is probably best to refer to, especially the short stories of fifty leaders in their own words which is found in Appendix A.

So by the time we get to 2004 the individual spiritual journey’s, alt worship groups, academic work and intellectual discussions amongst church leaders were coming together and in the UK there were a growing number of ‘ordinary’ Christians who were connecting with this in some form or another….I was just one of them – another person in their early ’30′s who was educated to degree level, working in the public sector who was uncomfortable in the mainstream evangelical sub-culture(s) of the time. On the wibsite, Ship and at Greenbelt I found myself connecting with others who were trying to work it out.

The trickle down recognition was also leading at the same time to an official recognition of what was going on and in 2005 the Church of England and Methodist Church launched Fresh Expressions  led by Stephen Croft (as explained in this Fresh Expressions article).

At the same time in the late 1990′s in the mainstream church in the UK and beyond there was a renewed emphasis on social justice emerging as a result of the Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History campaigns, (the latter of which this blog covered in July 2005 when the G8 came to Scotland).

As I see it and I think this blog may have reflected (although it varied at different points) the angst and frustration element which had fuelled much of the post evangelical, alt worship/ emerging church discussion burnt out a little and the aspects focused more on creativity and mission grew stronger.

This is where I think the Fresh Expressions element fed in because together with the Mission Shaped Church report which the Church of England had published in 2004 it meant that within the mainstream UK church and the media/ conferences supporting it there was a change in the dominant conversation and thinking. There appeared to become a greater understanding that whilst those churches were losing members to new church streams (particularly New Frontiers) they were also losing members by the back door as well as failing to adequately grasp and combat secularisation. At the same time I think there was also a realisation of what we already had and what we might be losing if we through the baby out with the bath water.

The upshot is many of those of us who were angsty actually re-engaged with church but often moving to mainstream rather than evangelical churches. For myself it meant moving into Methodism, (something which was a God thing but also I think is typical of what others I am aware of have done in moving from highly evangelical/ charismatic churches into more mainstream churches).

At the same time the evangelical sub-culture itself has changed. There have been various splits and alliances going on which have seen some divisions being left behind and others becoming seen as more important.

The result of these shifting sands have interestingly seen, (if one reads the books) a number of those who were at one point post-evangelical or part of the alt. worship scene offering themselves for ministry in traditional denominations (myself included as regular readers who followed my candidating journey will be aware of). Additionally those denominations and the training institutions they work with are also increasingly offering training and accreditation in pioneer ministry now.

So where does this leave us now? The short answer is in a time of change as a recent post from Jonny Baker (a sort of god-father of the UK emerging church/ Fresh Expressions movement) has highlighted.

The longer answer can be found in 3 recent posts I have put up which combined together I think outline the overall picture:

The first post is a response to a Kurt Willems post which focuses on the development of the emerging church and the way the language/ form of that movement has changed.

The second post outlines the talk on secularisation and follow up discussion which Michael Moynagh gave to Milton Keynes Theology Forum recently. His conclusion is that we are on a knife-edge and it could go either way.

The final post is on evangelicalism and was a response to Adrian Warnock’s post and looks at whether progressives can still claim that Evangelical identity or whether we are now at a place where evangelicalism needs to be more narrowly defined. Warnock’s attempt to refine and narrow the definition can be seen in many ways as an attempt to protect the very aspects which one or two decades many people were seeking to move away from. Warnock is essentially saying as we have moved more into the mainstream the term Progressive Evangelical which has emerged, especially in the US, for those of us who do not want to let go of that Evangelical element of our identity is at best meaningless and at worse something which can cause confusion and stops traditional, conservative Evangelicals such as himself so easily publicly defining themselves.