New directions for the Church 5: open membership

Cartoon of questioner being unwelcome in a church This is the fifth in a series of posts looking for new directions for the institutional churches. Here I argue that they need fuzzy edges.

One of the unfortunate features of the post-1970s version of Evangelicalism currently so dominant is the presupposition that there is a clear distinction between true Christians and everybody else. In reality we are a mixed bunch. We all have different beliefs, doubts and practices. Becoming a Christian isn’t necessarily a big jump.

I had to engage with an extreme example of this error while I was a university chaplain. To those who came across it for the first time it was quite astonishing how sharply young undergraduates were prepared to divide the human population between true Christians and everybody else. 20-year-olds would warn 18-year-olds against believing what their lecturers taught if it had any connection with their version of Christianity. I, as a chaplain, was usually counted as a non-Christian.

It isn’t a new invention. Behind this black-and-white account of humanity lie centuries of teaching that after death everybody is going to spend eternity in either bliss or excruciating pain. People who believed it naturally wanted to know their prognosis.

On the other hand, most people learn from experience that actually we are all shades of grey. So what is it about the undergraduate experience that attracts them to this divisiveness?

My observations suggest some answers. At the age of 18 they leave home and are plunged into a new world full of other people their own age or a year or two older. Suddenly, nobody is making sure they are home by midnight. Nobody is limiting their use of alcohol, drugs or sex. Nobody is providing cooked meals or washing their clothes. The intensity of the new situation can be liberating, challenging or threatening. Some throw themselves into their new life with delight. Others can’t cope and go home, or commit suicide. Others again are rescued by a new order of discipline.

This is the point at which student-led religious groups like Christian Unions perform a role which can fairly be described as the salvation of some students. Unfortunately, the salvation comes at a price.

The discipline works by persuading the student to adopt a distinct identity. As a Christian, they are to think of themselves as quite unlike the non-Christians around them. Thus they join a counter-cultural clique with a Gnostic sense of superiority.

This black-and-white divisiveness usually doesn’t survive the student experience. However enough of it survives, in enough graduates, to explain the dominance of divisive Christianity in our post-1970s Evangelicalism. I don’t think we need to look any further for an explanation of those sharp dividing-lines.

The clique produces an extensive in-house jargon. 18-year-old Evangelicals, newly arrived at university, recognise each other by the language they speak. Those who describe themselves as Christians but do not speak Evangelicalese are easily spotted.

Jargon can also exclude by what does not get said because the clique expects everybody to accept it. One can be made to feel uncomfortable for questioning the Virgin Birth or the inerrancy of the Bible, as though everybody knows that all Christians believe in these things.

I thought the website of the Church of England’s initiative Thy Kingdom Come was a good example. It is designed to encourage people to pray. It follows the latest fashion in website design and restricts itself to simple words. However, it does not explain why praying is a good thing to do, let alone how to do it. If the intention is to encourage people who don’t pray to give it a go, the omission seems astonishing. One is left with the impression that it is really aimed at people who have already bought into their beliefs about prayer.

In ways like this, a great deal of church discourse has become exclusive, both by using in-house jargon and by taking too much for granted. Church spokespeople talk about ‘bringing people to Christ’ or ‘coming to know Jesus’ or ‘the Christian message’ as though these terms had a well-known meaning. Thus they address their own constituency, not the general public.

This is one reason why the post-1970s dominant Evangelicalism fails to evangelise. As long as church leaders, and their literature, talk as though there is a clear dividing line between true Christians and everyone else, those who limit what they are prepared to buy into will get the message that they are being rejected as non-Christian.

When people respond to a version of Christianity presented to them – whichever version it is – by not buying into the whole package, they may have many reasons. Some think of themselves as Christians at heart even though they don’t go along with all of it. Others aren’t sure about themselves, or wish they could be more Christian than they are. If church authorities give them the message that, because they don’t buy into the complete package, they do not count as Christians at all – that they are outsiders – they are likely to understand perfectly well that they are being rejected.

The overall effect is that the missionary efforts of black-and-white Evangelicalism backfire. For every convert they make to their version of Christianity, they drive 20 further away than ever. But since they were already classifying the 20 as non-Christians anyway, they fail to notice the damage being done.

What should we be doing instead?

I would like to reaffirm a claim common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam: that all humans are God’s children. God loves us all equally and, like a caring parent, wants us to love each other, respect each other as equals, and stop quarrelling.

There is no single package of beliefs functioning as a criterion for Christianness. God transcends human understanding. Our beliefs, however well we understand them, are only partial.

Instead of focusing on the differences and treating them as reasons for division, we could focus on our common humanity and affirm what we have in common.

The Church, it has often been said, should be strong at the centre and fuzzy at the edges. There are no hard and fast dividing lines between Christians and non-Christians. We vary. Our variety is a gift that enriches us. It is to be welcomed and celebrated.

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2 Responses to New directions for the Church 5: open membership

  1. David Keen says:

    A couple of comments
    – most of this post is about what you don’t like rather than about what you do. What does ‘open membership’ look like?
    – given that most of the CofE isn’t Evangelical in the way that you describe it, are there good examples of open membership in churches of other theological traditions which show signs of thriving, where the fuzzy edges encourage people towards exploration, and ultimately deeper commitment?
    – affirming a claim to common humanity and God’s love for all is good and right, but do you think there are any beliefs/practices which are distinctively Christian? If not, there’s not really any good reason for the existence of the church, we could close down the lot and rechannel the billions of pounds and millions of hours of paid and voluntary effort into something more productive.

    • Thanks David, interesting and important questions. I would love it if they were discussed more openly, as a normal part of church discourse.
      My immediate responses are as follows.
      1) I accept the criticism that it is mainly about what I don’t like. I’ve had so much experience of black-and-white exclusions and I didn’t want the post to be any longer than it was.
      2) Indeed I agree that most of the C of E isn’t Evangelical in the way I describe it. It’s the mood that has been prevailing in the leadership, over the past few decades, that I’m unhappy with. So: pretty well all my experience of rural parish ministry has been much more open. People support the church for all sorts of reasons and nobody examines their beliefs. When the new vicar arrives who does examine their beliefs – or at least tells them what they all have to believe – some stop attending and others endure this incumbent while hoping the next one will be better.
      3) Are there any distinctively Christian beliefs and practices? Actually I don’t care. It’s one thing to be distinctive, another to be important. Since the 18th century, with the idea that the enlightened West is far superior to the rest of the world, distinctive Christian doctrines – like the divinity of Christ – have been proclaimed as part of the case for Western superiority. If the most important insights of Christianity are shared with Islam and Buddhism, that’s all to the good, isn’t it? I wouldn’t see that as a case for closing churches down. It might be a case for joint events with the local mosque, or whatever, but I’m not against that in principle. So long as I don’t have to organise it.

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