Gone for Good?

A day conference on church leaving

Report by Karin Lyle (NW region conferences)

from Signs of the Times, No. 27 - Oct 2007

On Saturday, June 9th, Professor Leslie Francis of the University of Wales, Bangor, joined a group of us, from the North West Branch of the Modern Churchpeople's Union, at St. Deiniol's Library, Hawarden. Our purpose was to consider the reasons why people are ceasing to attend church. Gone for Good?, to be published later this year, is the sequel to Professor Francis's earlier book, Gone but not Forgotten. In it he takes further his research into falling church attendance, by examining the relationship between people's motives for leaving church and the prospects for their future return. In many cases, he suggests, 'congregation switching' within a 'Multiplex church', could be advocated as infinitely preferable to having people leave the church altogether.

The research for this project is rooted in the practical concerns of the church. For this reason each of the 15 core chapters, identifying key reasons for leaving the church, ends with a section on pastoral implications. The reasons identified are: matters of belief and unbelief; growing up; life transitions; alternative lives and meanings; incompatible lifestyles; not belonging and fitting in; costs and benefits; disillusionment with the church; being let down by the church; problems with relevance; problems with change; problems with worship; problems with leadership; problems with conservativism; and problems with liberalism. The varied nature of the problems, Francis suggests, points to a need for the church to take much more seriously its doctrine of creation and individual differences. In Gen.1.27 and in Gal. 3.28 we are given an indication of the breadth of human diversity embraced in God. We, as the church, must show a similar inclusivity, and must extend an equal welcome to all personality types, as well as respecting people's gender, colour and ethnic differences. In particular, Francis maintains, we might need to question traditional attitudes in the church which, consciously or unconsciously, have accorded higher value to introverts than extraverts, and favoured those showing loving acceptance over those demonstrating critical judgement. As a way of catering for these differing needs, the model of the 'multiplex church' is proposed, by which is meant a multiplicity of congregations, either in a single building, or in various different types of church in a given locality, each offering their different perspective on the same faith, and different ways of celebrating participation in the Kingdom of God.

Many of us, initially, were quite taken with this model, for the immensely extended embrace of Christian affirmation which it appears to encourage. Certainly it seems accurately to reflect what is actually happening in some parts of the church at the moment. The need to facilitate greater participation in church life generally, and particularly amongst the currently inarticulate, was a view emphasized by many present. The basic Christian communities of Latin American liberation theology were cited as an alternative way in which this participation is being encouraged in other parts of the Christian world. None of us dissented from the view that there must be room for diversity, space for all to feel 'at home' in the church. Equally clearly, the degree of difference that the church is currently being asked to embrace is so great that our human capacity to cope often feels stretched beyond breaking point! (As one questioner asked, 'How tolerant can we afford to be of the intolerant, how inclusive of those who wish to exclude?) The simple solution would seem to be to take the 'multiplex ' route, to subdivide into groups of more like-minded Christians, each geared more particularly to the needs of its own members. Here people could feel secure enough to articulate their real articles of faith, to voice their real doubts and hopes and fears, and to pose their real questions in a more supportive-feeling environment. However, aside from the practical problem of paucity of resources for the multiplex model, particularly in rural areas, the great flaw in this idea, it seems to me, (and here I confess to speaking as someone, who has, sadly, twice felt the need in the last 10 years to 'switch congregations'), that such an emphasis on diversity at the expense of unity seems to betray our fundamental faith in God as Father and 'ground of our being', and our common trust in Jesus Christ as our Way to the Father.

In an age of increasingly parallel living and ever greater fragmentation in our human community, perhaps we need instead to turn today to Alec Vidler, most eminent theologian of liberality, and a former warden of St. Deiniol's, who, in his Windsor Sermons, cannot emphasize strongly enough the need for the church to be seen not as a 'club' but as a 'family'. 'It is the family', he writes, 'in which we were all originally made to exist... It is mankind restored to the unity which sin and selfishness broke up... It is the community in which all men (and women) are bound together, whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not. Therefore of no human being may we say: "he is nothing to do with me". We all belong to one another and are bound to help and support one another. Would a 'Multiplex Church' really encourage this?