Sermons go to work on us in strange, almost inexpressible, ways. Sometimes, what we recall years after the event are not specific words or illustrations, or even the identity of the speaker. Instead, what lingers is an impression made upon us, a feeling of conviction or excitement which remains even if the detail of what was said has not stayed in our long-term memory.
One such event happened for me in the late 1990s, the address delivered in the closing celebration service of a major evangelical festival, when the faithful were offered ‘one for the road’, a last shot of energy and inspiration to take with them to the churches and contexts of daily life. I can still recall a sense of tangible expectancy, which we were experiencing in more ways than one. My wife was pregnant with our first child, and had felt him kicking in her womb for the first time during one of the week’s evening celebrations, responding to the atmosphere of worship which surrounded him, moving as if in the spirit of the unborn John the Baptist who sensed the presence of his Lord as Elizabeth and Mary greeted each other. Expectation levels were raised as well by the preacher, who confidently predicted that each one of us would be returning not to more of the same, but to a new season of revival when a rain of blessing would fall, bringing new and abundant life to people and churches which were dry and parched.
Even at the time I felt a certain detachment and wariness about what was being said. I remember how the thought came to me that this could be the ecclesiastical equivalent of David Steel’s famous speech at the end of the 1981 Liberal Party Conference, when he famously told activists to, ‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.’ I wondered how such bullish predictions of church growth would stand the test of time, how energised we would all be a few months down the line when we were no longer fuelled by the high-octane mix on offer in the Big Top.
Perhaps my wariness was founded on a sense of having heard such sermons on a recurring basis during the 1990s. This was the era of Toronto, when evangelicals laughed and toppled as the Spirit moved in worship, and the ‘Decade of Evangelism’, when we took to the streets to march for Jesus and proclaimed His message with boldness and confidence. Another abiding memory from the same period is of joining thousands of other Christians in Wembley Arena to sing of Jesus as ‘Champion of the World’. Our own church, planted like so many others in the 1990s and comprising mainly young families, had experienced some growth but nothing which quite matched the language of our worship.
I wonder how other evangelicals of my generation feel as they look back on the bombastic confidence of the 1990s. Today, the signs outside our local churches are as likely to advertise a foodbank or a debt counselling service as Alpha or Christianity Explored. Somewhere along the way we rediscovered our social conscience. In part, we did so in a rush to fill a space vacated by the state, as the word ‘austerity’ became part of our everyday lexicon with the arrival of the coalition government of 2010, though I wonder if the changing emphases in our church programmes reflect a ruefulness about previous forms of evangelism which focused on words and proclamation at the expense of practical action. Could it also be the case that we speak fewer words because we’re no longer sure of what to say? Old certainties on topics such as sexuality and heaven and hell have been displaced by an awareness of how shrill and unwelcoming we’ve sounded in the past, an appreciation of the need to allow doubt to be expressed and the importance of listening with greater openness to people who have previously felt pushed away.
It was the psychologist Leon Festinger who first used the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ to describe the stress we experience when trying to hold in tension contradictory beliefs and behaviour in our lives. For example, we loathe ourselves because we continue to smoke in spite of our knowledge of the harm we’re doing to our bodies, or we continue to drive a petrol-guzzling car even though to do so is at odds with a genuine concern we feel for the environment. Ultimately, the only way to overcome such problems is to either modify our practice or our attitude.
As I reflect on my own experiences of church leadership and have spoken with others in similar positions, it has occurred to me that many of us might be living with stresses, doubts that won’t go away or a discontent with the status quo, which are best explained by Festinger’s theory. There are gaps between the ways we live and the things we believe. Our churches increasingly invest their time in projects that demonstrate the values of the kingdom but much of our theology continues to be shaped by an understanding of the gospel that focuses on saving the world one individual at a time. Sunday by Sunday, we sing of our trust in God and His providence, but during the week we exhaust ourselves with increasingly busy programmes of activity as we search desperately for the silver bullet which will bring the church growth we hope to see. And our songs of unwavering trust and confidence in God can sometimes feel disconnected from lives in which we are experiencing the same battles with doubt or anxiety as everyone else.
In his letter to early Christian believers, James makes no reference to cognitive dissonance. But he did encourage those looking for wisdom to ‘… ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind’ (James 1:6, NRSV).
The ocean waves which lap upon our shores are caused by the pull of two opposing forces, the gravitational pull of the sun and that of the moon. It’s stressful and exhausting to constantly be pulled in different directions, in contrast to the peace which James later describes as a hallmark of the lives of those who are ‘wise and understanding’ (James 3:13-18).
Often, the first and most important step in solving a problem is to acknowledge its existence. Bridging the Gaps has been written in an attempt to articulate and help us understand some of the tensions our churches are going through, the complications and contradictions we need to acknowledge so that we can grow and know a peace-giving convergence between what we believe and life as we experience it.
The Gap between Individualism and Community
In March 1845, a group of around 100 young men in Leeds gathered together at one of the mutual societies which were commonplace at the time, organisations which enabled their working-class members to support each other in the quest for self-improvement. We have no record of the impression made upon that audience, but what we do know is that the event proved to be seminal for the speaker, a turning point in the career of one of the most prominent public figures in Victorian England.
Samuel Smiles had a Reformed Presbyterian upbringing in his native Scotland and initially pursued a career in medicine. He had moved away from the faith of his youth and become a journalist by the time he’d settled in Leeds in 1838 and spent the next ten years campaigning with many others for causes such as the extension of suffrage and better education for the working classes. In his March 1845 talk, he encouraged his listeners to see self-improvement as more than a means by which their own circumstances might be improved. Instead, he said:
The grand object aimed at should be to make the great mass of the people virtuous, intelligent, well-informed, and well-conducted; and to open to them new sources of pleasure and happiness. Knowledge is of itself one of the higher enjoyments.
So began a new chapter in the life of the man regarded as Britain’s first self-help guru. Smiles returned to give further talks to Leeds’ aspiring young workers, lectures which inspired the material for his most famous work, Self-Help, published in 1859. Few of us today may have heard of Smiles, but it’s almost impossible to overstate his significance to Victorians which can be best understood by considering some remarkable statistics about his literary output. Within a year of its release, 20,000 copies of Self-Help had been sold, and, by the time of his death in 1904, 258,000 had been bought by British readers. Self-Help outsold every novel of the nineteenth century and was translated into numerous other languages, including eighteen editions and 75,000 copies sold in Italian. Dominic Sandbrook notes, ‘At Wormwood Scrubs, Self-Help was reportedly the most popular title in the prison library’. A number of other books followed, including Character (1871), Thrift (1875) and Duty (1887).
Samuel Smiles wasn’t the only Victorian figure to emphasise the importance of personal responsibility and self-discipline. We can’t even be sure that he was the inventor of the term ‘self-help’, which others attribute to his contemporary, Thomas Carlyle. It’s also worth noting that the book is not a celebration of self-advancement for its own sake, emphasising the importance of other values such as honesty and good character.
And yet there’s no doubt that Samuel Smiles’ books captured perfectly the mood of his time, an insistence on the potential each person had to improve their lot in life through commitment and hard work. This was also the period when the wealth of the Industrial Revolution was beginning to be shared by the new and emerging middle class, people who for the first time could put distance between themselves and those beneath them by buying goods and a lifestyle which put their new wealth on display. And it’s no coincidence that this era also saw the emergence of a new and significant force in the church, the evangelicals.
‘A personal Jesus’: the rise of the evangelicals
When we try to understand the stories of the generations who came before us, one of our biggest potential problems is overcoming the temptation to assume that they saw the world in the same way we do, that their thinking, feeling and reacting was driven by impulses and presumptions which we regard as givens.
Most of us who have grown up in Britain in the late twentieth or early twenty-first centuries will take for granted the view that religion is a matter of individual choice. This perspective is one which will be reinforced for us if we attend an evangelical church, where we are regularly reminded that faith is not just about attendance at meetings or intellectual beliefs but also to do with our emotions, a love for God which is experienced as much in the heart as the head. Our worship songs and our teaching include a constant focus on our personal relationships with God, how to get close to Him, how to stay close and how to keep our love for Him alive. But it wasn’t always so.
One of the best-known definitions of evangelicalism has been produced by the British historian David Bebbington, who identifies four hallmarks of evangelical belief and practice: biblicism (an emphasis on the authority of Scripture), activism (it’s not just what we believe, living it out matters as well), crucicentrism (the central importance attached to the death of Jesus on the cross) and conversionism, ‘the belief that lives need to be changed’. But it’s hard to understand the significance of this emphasis on individual experience without thinking more about the wider religious and social changes which took place as the evangelical movement emerged.
Most of us are probably familiar with the experience of going to church and then asking ourselves, perhaps on the way home or over Sunday lunch, ‘how it was for us’. If we do analyse church in this way, there will probably be a number of factors which we take into consideration. Did we enjoy the worship and feel God’s presence among us? Was there a sense of connectedness to God, for us personally and those around us? How was the sermon? It’s not unreasonable that we ask ourselves these questions. Far better, most of us would agree, to think about and reflect on the extent to which we have properly engaged with God and the people of God, rather than just going through the motions.
However, questions such as these might never have occurred to previous generations of Christian worshippers. It’s not that they didn’t believe with the same intensity and devotion as us, people who might regard ourselves as more self-aware and attuned to our feelings. Those attending church through the Reformation and in the period following it understood the importance of salvation by faith alone, but did so with a confidence and assurance about how God can work through the faithful preaching of Scripture and celebration of sacraments, and in a time when how we felt at any given moment about all of this simply wasn’t as important as it is now.
All this changed, however, in the course of the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It’s been said that it was the eighteenth-century American revivalist preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards who:
made the crucial change when he developed a keen interest in the morphology of conversion, and when he decided to locate true religion in the affections.
Such a perspective is probably taken for granted by many of us, but at the time the change it represented was dramatic. Now, the extent to which a person experienced an emotional quickening became the key measurement of the sincerity of their response to the gospel and, for later revivalists, it wasn’t enough that such feelings were generated at the moment of conversion. The methods of Charles Finney provide an example of this approach:
Find the most useful methods, (‘excitements,’ he called them) and there will be conversion. ‘A revival will decline and cease,’ he warned, ‘unless Christians are frequently re-converted.’
By the early nineteenth century, reports of revivalism were reaching England. Methodists, inspired by what they perceived as similarities between American camp meetings and the itinerant preaching of the Wesleys, decided to organise gatherings along similar lines. Later in the same century, D L Moody visited the United Kingdom, pioneering a new style of mass evangelism that relied on a combination of informal, conversational preaching and personal testimony, and gospel songs, most famously those of Ira Sankey, which invited an audience to express its response with the deeper sense of emotion generated by music.
It wasn’t just the revivalists who contributed to the emergence of this new, confident and activist movement within the church. In 1846 the first meeting of the Evangelical Alliance had been held in London, attended by a variety of groups motivated by a greater desire for unity and the realisation of what might be achieved by working together on issues such as religious liberty. This period also witnessed the increasing growth and confidence of the Nonconformists, churches whose model of worship emphasised the importance of the sermon and who produced a new generation of outstanding preachers, the most famous probably being the Baptist C H Spurgeon, who needed theatres and music halls to accommodate the crowds who flocked to hear him before the 5,000-seat Metropolitan Tabernacle was built in 1861. Meanwhile, in 1875 the first Keswick Convention was held, so establishing an important new fixture in the calendar of British evangelicalism.
When we look back at this period of evangelical history, it’s important to recognise that this was not a generation preoccupied only with saving souls and cultivating personal devotion to God. As we’ll discover later, the nineteenth century was also a period when many churches invested considerable resources in attempts to meet the physical needs of the poorest members of their community, with projects that included Sunday schools, household visiting and nursing, models of care and support which were the forerunners of our present health visiting and social work. However, it’s hard to escape the impression that the evangelicals, especially those of the Free Churches, were developing a spirituality that encouraged a preoccupation firstly with one’s own soul and secondly with the maintenance of increasingly busy programmes that made up local church life.
It’s been noted that the book which best summed up the mindset of the Free Churchmen was Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the story of one believer’s personal journey, enduring the trials and temptations of the world and eventually arriving unscathed in the Celestial City. It’s understandable that a sort of siege mentality must have been felt by people who still faced considerable barriers to their participation in wider society. It wasn’t until 1854 and 1856, for example, that the removal of matriculation and graduation tests enabled Nonconformists to attend Oxford and Cambridge. Yet there were other reasons for the distance they kept from those around them; a stress on the need for moral witness and a consciousness of dangers such as alcohol combined with social lives that revolved entirely around the activities of the chapel, creating a kind of holy disengagement from the world that was lived out by many Nonconformists.
There is much to be learned about the lives of the evangelicals by examining their spiritual perspectives. But one more factor needs to be considered if we’re to fully understand this formative period in their history. Evangelicals weren’t just experiencing church growth, they were also moving up in the world. They were getting richer.
In part, such social mobility can be explained by the ways in which chapels and churches developed qualities which enabled evangelicals to prosper in the world. The self-discipline which fostered spiritual growth went hand in hand with the hard work and determination needed to progress in the workplace, while the skills needed to organise the church meetings required by congregational government were similar to those which offered success in commerce or industry. The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 also opened up new opportunities for those attending the Free Churches.
Some church leaders recognised the potential risks associated with this increased prosperity, and the finery which came along with it. Commenting on the new habit of some Baptist ministers of wearing clerical collars and coats, Spurgeon complained:
Our working class will never be brought even to consider the truth of Christianity by teachers who are starched and fine.
His comments were prescient: the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries proved to be a high watermark for Nonconformists, who found themselves ‘increasingly distanced … in ethos, worship and outlook from the working classes’, but enjoying a new-found prestige in society.
Of course, Nonconformists and evangelicals weren’t the only group of people to benefit from the increased prosperity of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In the same period, the Catholic Church sought to improve the quality of its schools, understanding education and an encouragement of sobriety and self-discipline to be means of changing the circumstances of its members, especially a wave of immigrants from Ireland. But it seems to me that there was a particular set of influences which combined in this period to create a collective mindset still shared today by many evangelicals.
Consider the recipe: we take a belief in self-help and hard work which encourages people to apply themselves with discipline and determination to improving their circumstances in life. Remember Samuel Smiles? I wonder how many of those evangelicals who were making their way in the world in the Victorian era had a copy of Self-Help on their shelves. Add to that an increasing number of people sharing new levels of material prosperity. And then, finally, complete the mixture with a spirituality which puts far greater emphasis on ourselves, our feelings and discerning the specific plans God has for our lives. If we’re not careful, this combination could become toxic.
Mention the term ‘prosperity gospel’ and most of us will immediately conjure up mental images of larger-than-life tele-evangelists making outrageous claims about the blessings which God will give to those who follow their teachings. Make a contribution to the new private jet or the refurbished broadcasting studio and wait for the good times to roll.
I’m sure that many of us would be appalled if it were suggested that we believe in a prosperity gospel. I’m not denying the importance of seeking God’s wisdom and guidance for the crucial decisions each of us has to make in our lives, questions such as whom to marry and where to live and work. But I also believe we need to acknowledge the dangers which can come with this way of thinking and the need for all of us to be self-aware and honest with ourselves as we reflect on how God is at work in our lives.
When He spoke about the way God distributes His blessing, Jesus suggested an approach which seems to fly in the face of many of our assumptions. He describes His Father in heaven as one who ‘causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:45). Many of us might be troubled by the apparently arbitrary nature of God’s blessing which is described here but we need to pay attention to the implication of Jesus’ teaching. I’m sure there are occasions when the blessing which comes our way is the result of God’s intervention in our lives, His direct answer to our prayers. But there will be other moments when the benefits we experience are part and parcel of the generous provision God is lavishing on lots of other people around, irrespective of whether they acknowledge Him as the gift-giver. We bought the same shares as everyone else in the stock flotation. We lived through the same property boom as our neighbours.
I am not denying that God wants us to seek His will for our lives and wants to provide for our needs. I believe this is true because of moments of inexplicable provision which I can’t describe as anything other than God’s intervention, times when money to pay the bills was posted through the door anonymously or when job opportunities came out of nowhere. But there have also been moments when my prayers didn’t seem to be answered in the way I would have preferred and I’ve seen this pattern played out in the lives of people around me. I’ve known many fellow Christians who are faithful and earnest in seeking God’s guidance and provision. Some are wealthy and some have struggled in poverty all their lives. Some have been healthy and others have longed for healing and kept on battling with illness, and why the blessing came to one and not the other remains to me a mystery. But then I remember how Jesus also told His followers that ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:20). And this reminds me of another temptation which we constantly need to be battling against, the belief that God is showing up only in the good times and that following Him guarantees us a free pass from hardship.
Is there any language we can find which might allow us to express how God is relating to us, in a healthier way? It might be helpful to think about the difference between God caring for us and God indulging us, the difference between our belief in His love for us which extends to even the minor details of our lives (‘You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways’ [Psalm 139:3]) and a theology which presumes He is ordering the world solely on our terms, a theology which allows us to give thanks for the blessings which come from His provision and intervention in our lives but which also recognises and laments the disorder and injustice in our world which affect our neighbours near and far away.
Attending to these issues is important because the beliefs we have about how God is working personally in our lives are always more than personal. They spill over into the attitudes we hold and the assumptions we make about what is happening in the lives of others. As recently as 2015, 96 per cent of Evangelical Alliance survey respondents affirmed their belief that ‘Everyone has a duty to work to support themselves and their family if they can’, while 11 per cent agreed with the statement that ‘if we are faithful we will prosper materially’. In the same survey, evangelicals were asked what they considered to be the top causes of poverty in the UK. Only 33 per cent saw ‘educational inequality’ as an issue, and only 37 per cent believed ‘inequality or social justice’ to be a factor. However, 75 per cent of evangelicals considered ‘laziness’ to be a problem, and 84 per cent cited ‘welfare dependency’.
It’s important to note that other surveys of evangelicals reveal an awareness of the dangers of materialism and excessive wealth. In a 2015 survey, examining the extent to which they identify with the values of the wider population described in the British Social Attitudes Survey, 1,730 evangelicals were asked to list what they regard as the most negative traits in British society. Sixty-five per cent of respondents cited consumerism, 58 per cent obsession with celebrity and 51 per cent sexual promiscuity. Yet it’s tempting to suggest that we express concern about a materialistic culture without realising our own collusion with it, even the extent to which the culture and politics of Britain, reshaped since the 1980s when constraints from capitalism were systematically removed, have been influenced by a particular strain of evangelical Christianity. And that takes us to the story of one of the most influential British leaders of the twentieth century and how her values which reshaped the country were shaped by the faith of her youth.
‘The New Testament is preoccupied with the individual’: Mrs Thatcher and the evangelicals
Margaret Thatcher’s upbringing could be considered as providing a textbook example of the values of Nonconformist Middle England. One of the great influences upon her life was her father, Alfred Roberts: owner of two grocery shops in Grantham, Lincolnshire, a member of the Rotary Club, part-time Justice of the Peace, president of the Board of Trade, school governor, local councillor and, last but not least, a faithful attender and regular preacher at Finkin Street Methodist Church. It was this same church where Margaret attended services each Sunday, morning and evening services supplemented by Sunday school. Within this environment, she developed a view of the world predicated on a faith which was intensely personal and aligned to an emphasis on responsibility and hard work, a perspective that would eventually revolutionise Britain.
One of the clearest expressions of Margaret Thatcher’s understanding of her faith, and its relationship to social change, can be found in a speech she delivered in the parish of St Lawrence Jewry, in the City of London, in 1981. She observed:
the New Testament is preoccupied with the individual, with his need for forgiveness and for the Divine strength, which comes to those who sincerely accept it. Of course, we can deduce from it the teachings of the Bible principles of public as well as private morality; but, in the last resort, all these principles refer back to the individual in his relationship with others.
It could be said that this statement, more than any others, sums up the theology of Margaret Thatcher, with the ultimate priority which it attaches to the beliefs and actions of the individual. From this view of the world, an ideology was born which created an environment in which many flourished, exploiting the new opportunities which came from initiatives such as the sale of council homes, the privatisation of government-owned industries and new rules for the City and financial institutions. However, a heavy cost was borne by many who were caught up in the rapid changes of the 1980s, including those who lost their jobs (many working in traditional heavy industries) as rising unemployment was deemed a price worth paying to bring down inflation.
Mrs Thatcher’s programme was one which generated plenty of opposition, not least from the church. But it’s telling that the most vocal of these critics were prominent leaders of the Church of England. Their most famous assessment of the impact of government policy came in the 1985 report, Faith in the City, which expressed grave concerns about the effect of unemployment and poverty, especially in inner cities.
The report argued that the Church:
must question all economic philosophies, not least those which, when put into practice, have contributed to the blighting of whole districts, which do not offer the hope of amelioration, and which perpetuate the human misery and despair to which we have referred. The situation requires the Church to question from its own particular standpoint the morality of these economic philosophies.
It seems more than a coincidence that the most vocal church criticism came from one which is shaped around a parish model which has, at its heart, a commitment to place, and which necessarily requires a presence in every community in the country, from urban to rural and everything in between. Such an emphasis on place differs markedly from the focus on the individual which we’ve discovered to be central to the evangelical and Nonconformist mindset.
But there’s another aspect of Margaret Thatcher’s perspective which needs to be considered, which highlights an inherent weakness in any theology which limits God’s dealings with us and His world to only what happens at the individual level. Mrs Thatcher’s mission wasn’t just to set free individuals, but also to liberalise markets. During the 1980s, ‘market forces’ was a term that took on a new significance, one which hints at the way our lives aren’t just affected by individual decisions but by bigger structures and influences. The New Testament uses other language to describe these forces: ‘the rulers … the authorities … the powers of this dark world … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Ephesians 6:12).
Ultimately, Mrs Thatcher’s Christianity was one which failed to pay attention to these systems and structures. And to find out more about the pitfalls of such a view we need to leave British shores momentarily and consider some lessons from Chicago.
A story from Chicago
Chicago has recently been described as ‘arguably the capital of black America’, the city which gave the United States the first black Congressman elected in the north, the broadcasting sensation that was The Oprah Winfrey Show and, most famously of all, the first African American president. But the city is also regarded as one of the most racially segregated in the country. African Americans moved north to Chicago in the Great Migration of the first half of the twentieth century, but were prevented from moving into white neighbourhoods by a series of restrictive measures which included bank practices which limited access to mortgages and policies which blocked the development of public housing in these areas. As whites began to move to the suburbs after the Second World War and restrictive covenants were removed by court orders, African Americans took up residence in many neighbourhoods in the city’s south and west sides, a change which dramatically altered Chicago’s demographics: ‘In one generation, a third of the city’s community areas went from monolithically white to monolithically black.’
The disturbing story of how some of Chicago’s churches responded to these changes has recently been told by the American academic Mark Mulder. Mulder’s work is a study of seven Christian Reformed Church communities, Dutch-heritage believers with a background of Calvinist theology and a congregational model of church. Each of these churches faced significant change in their neighbourhoods as African Americans moved into the Englewood and Roseland districts where they lived. We might imagine that their response could have been to welcome these newcomers and the new perspectives brought by their different experiences and theological perspectives. But instead they simply relocated, each congregation taking itself off to a nearby white suburb. How could this be? How could so many churches collude with and perpetuate racial division in their city?
The picture that emerges in Mulder’s story is one of an understanding of faith which makes believers responsible for their personal piety but which fails to challenge their complicity with systems which keep people trapped in poverty or isolation. In this school of thought, a priority for Christians is the sustaining of a personal relationship with God, to the exclusion of wider social issues. Individual members of these churches insisted that their personal morality allowed no room for racist attitudes but collectively they colluded with migration patterns which sustained racial segregation in the city. It was hard to read this story without memories being evoked of my own childhood in Northern Ireland. In spite of the conflict in our society that brought death and injury on a weekly basis, each Sunday we attended church only to hear yet another reminder about the need for individual salvation. I find it hard to recall sermons on themes such as peacemaking or reconciliation. Among the many tragic aspects of the thirty years of the ‘Troubles’ is the fact that they took place in an area where church attendance was far higher than the rest of the United Kingdom. It is little wonder that some traditional churches in the Province, having offered so little to a divided society in its time of conflict, are seen as increasingly irrelevant in a time of peace.
Reflecting on Mulder’s account of Chicago, I find myself wondering about my own complicity with the widening inequality in my own society. I ask myself about how much time I’ve invested in growing my personal faith, reading and studying, when I could have been getting to know my neighbours instead. None of us set out to do this deliberately, but the busyness of our church and personal routines can so easily overwhelm us and make it hard for us to see beyond our own pressing and immediate challenges.
As Mulder lists other reasons which explain evangelical departure from Englewood and Roseland, I am struck by the similarities between their experience and my own. For many believers, their primary relationships were with other members of a congregation rather than those who lived in their neighbourhood, another reflection of the way faith was lived in a dislocated bubble with no connection to a physical space. It also appears that the privilege and wealth of some of these white evangelicals made it hard for them to really understand the challenges and prejudices faced by others living nearby. Well-intentioned we may be, but if we live in material comfort and without anxiety about how to pay the bills or pay for the shopping, we will probably find it impossible to truly appreciate the extent of the struggle to get by which is experienced by people living closer to us than we think.
In 2005, delivering the commencement address at Kenyon College, the American author David Foster Wallace told the following well-known story:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish, swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them: ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then one looks over at the other. ‘What the hell is water?’
The story offers an important reminder of the way in which aspects of our culture can become so much a part of the landscape of our lives that we barely notice the influence they are having upon us. We think of ourselves as ‘in the world but not of it’ (see John 17:14-16), often defining our position on issues such as sexual morality or the consumption of alcohol, oblivious to the ways in which the principalities and powers operate in economic models which we take for granted.
It’s impossible to completely separate ourselves from the culture around us, and also important to bear in mind that Scripture doesn’t tell us to do so anyway. As with so many issues, there’s a tension to be held here. The early Christians were urged to come out of Babylon so as to escape God’s coming judgement on the empire (Revelation 18:4). That command is found in Revelation, written to a church suffering persecution from the Roman Empire but where Babylon is the symbol of all worldly powers which set themselves up against God’s purposes. But 600 years earlier, when a group of Jewish exiles found themselves in the real Babylon, God reminded them of the importance of putting down roots and seeking the blessing of the place which was to be their home for the foreseeable future (Jeremiah 29:1-10).
This is the balancing act to which we’re called, seeking the peace of our communities and cities while also making sure not to sell out to the values of the wider culture. We’ve already reflected on how the personal approach to faith which is prevalent in many of our churches is a reflection of our evangelical heritage, but it’s time to consider one more influence upon us: the individualism which is the air we all breathe in twenty-first-century British culture.
If we cannot completely remove ourselves from the world, we can at least develop a greater awareness about the ways in which we are influenced by it. A first step on this journey might be a recognition of how the individualism of our evangelical faith reflects not just the heritage of our churches but also that of society.
All around us: the rise of individualism
One of the pitfalls of not being aware of the water we’re swimming in can be our failure to realise that the currents are changing and that we’re being swept along in the process. Among the most significant developments in Western society has been the increasingly fragmented and individualised nature of our lives, transitions which have gathered pace since the end of the Second World War.
Home life in Britain has seen immeasurable change in this period. The increasing availability of television meant that families spent less of their leisure time at the pub or club and more in the homes which were being enthusiastically self-improved by their owner-occupiers. As with so many of these developments which began in the 1950s and 1960s, the pace of change has continued and even gathered pace since the turn of the century. The closure of large numbers of public houses in Britain in recent years can partly be explained by our increasing tendency to buy wine at the supermarket and drink it at home instead of enjoying beer at the pub. Another reason for the fragmentation of community relationships has been the growing availability of personal transport. Motorists can commute in privacy, with the car also enabling them to shop, play (and worship) away from their own areas.
In more recent years, the intensity of some of these changes has increased further. At one time even television offered some occasions of national unity. I still have vivid memories of the dramatic decision taken in 1983 by Coronation Street’s Deirdre Barlow to turn her back on her lover, Mike Baldwin, returning to married life with Ken. While living every moment of the suspense herself, my mother also spoke excitedly of how many other people were speculating on how the story would unfold, with the outcome even displayed on the half-time scoreboard at Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground: ‘Ken 1 Mike 0’.
Rarely, today, does the whole nation come together in this way. The availability of a vast new selection of TV channels has been followed by the rise of the internet and the increasing use of portable devices which means that even within a home it’s possible for different family members to be entertaining themselves alone. Instead of making us more knowledgeable and connected with one another, there is evidence that the internet is actually having the opposite effect. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information available online, many of us now retreat into smaller corners of the web, clicking only on links from sources or friends we trust. Instead of broadening our horizons, the internet becomes an echo chamber for most users, a place where our existing views of the world are reinforced. We listen to music, watch films and eat at restaurants recommended by communities of like-minded people, oblivious to the algorithms of social-media companies who keep us in our own little bubbles, ensuring that the stories we see and the links we can click on reflect our own particular interests.
We also need to recognise the impact of our long working-hours culture. The average British working week now totals 43.6 hours, compared to a European figure of 40.3, with both parents now working full-time in 45.5 per cent of couple households. When so much time is spent in the workplace, it is hardly surprising that what little leisure time is left is jealously guarded by hard-pressed families. These increasing pressures are often cited to explain a lack of civic engagement in Western societies.
Not everyone agrees with this analysis. Although levels of voter turnout are falling, along with the membership of traditional organisations such as trade unions, the Women’s Institute and churches, it’s been noted that some pressure groups and charities are seeing an increase in support. But to become a member or supporter of the Woodland Trust or Oxfam, for example, may require nothing more than filling out a Direct Debit instruction form or agreeing to receive the emails which fill the inboxes of many so-called ‘slacktivists’. It’s not that we fail to care about issues relating to the environment or social justice, but the busyness of our own routines means it’s often easier to hit the retweet button or share a link than it is to share our time or open our homes to others.
It could be argued that individualism is the natural human reaction to the relentless pace of life and change in our society, a survival instinct of those under pressure: the only way we can survive a long day at the office or on the road is to hibernate each evening with a bottle of wine and Netflix. However, other research indicates that this doesn’t need to be the case: a 2010 UK charities report suggested that ‘individuals and cultures that attach greater importance to self-transcendence and openness-to-change values’ are more likely to show ‘greater concern about bigger-than-self problems, and higher motivation to address these problems’. The same report suggests that in a similar way, individuals and societies who attach high value to self-enhancement are found to be ‘less concerned about global conflict and the abuse of human rights, more prejudiced towards outsiders’. Deciding that charity begins at home is not an inevitable human response in times of crisis; people can be conditioned to act towards others in a spirit of generosity and vulnerability. It’s tempting to consider how much of this ‘openness-to-change’ is encouraged in many of our churches, especially in those where the emphasis has been on stressing our difference and separation from others or even a suspicious resentment towards the inclusiveness of wider society.
Another counterpoint to the suggestion that we’ve become a culture of individuals turned in on ourselves is offered by those who point to the emergence of the many different groups which offer opportunities to participate in various types of self-help or self-improvement. Think, for example, of Weight Watchers, a keep-fit or mindfulness class, or even the many book clubs which have become so popular in recent years. Such groups have undoubtedly been the means of deepening relationships and broadening horizons for many people, but it’s hard to escape the sense that their focus is less on community service and more on how we can grow as individuals.
Could it be argued that a similar shift has taken place in our churches, where regular home group discussions have now become the focal point of congregational life for many Christians in recent decades? There are many benefits from these groups, which provide opportunities for deeper fellowship, accountability and discussion about how faith is lived out in everyday situations. But could it be that their popularity is evidence of ways we’ve been influenced by our wider culture, that the focus of our discipleship has shifted from public witness to private opinions and inward-looking relationships?
I am not suggesting that we cast aside our theology of conversion, but I do think it’s time for a fresh conversation about what we are converting people from, and what we are discipling them into. The vision of the church which we discover in the New Testament is not one of assorted individuals, each separately discovering that a relationship with Jesus might be the means by which they can become the best possible version of themselves. Instead, the early Christians discovered that they were becoming part of a story far bigger than any one person. They knew that the new work God had done in Jesus had ushered in a ‘new humanity’, not only restoring His relationship with people but removing the barriers which cause division between them (Ephesians 2:14-22), and they understood their mission in putting the values of this new kingdom on display. Wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters, all were to relate to each other in new ways ‘in Christ’, demonstrating the difference between their outlook and the attitudes of a world which ordered by power and hierarchy (Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9). These new attitudes weren’t just lived out within the confines of the church, they overflowed into love for enemies and a concern for the needs of the poor and marginalised. Even in the times when the new movement struggled to come to terms with the challenges of preaching to and welcoming both Jews and Gentiles, its leaders were able to find common ground in their agreement on the need to ‘remember the poor’ (Galatians 2:10).
In recent years, many churches have rediscovered the importance of this service of the disadvantaged. Our buildings are often open seven days a week, providing food and advice on debt, job clubs and night shelters. But could it be that we are living in kingdom ways, without thinking in kingdom ways, creating an unnecessary tension for many who are struggling to understand the significance of their actions? We give someone food, but with a nagging sense of regret if our interaction with them doesn’t create the opportunity to speak of Jesus? We open the church on a weekday to offer friendship and support to lonely parents and toddlers, but with a sadness that few if any will join our worship on Sunday? We suggest ways in which someone can find a way out of debt, but with a sense of quiet contentment about the ways in which our hard work and faithfulness have prevented us from falling into such hardship. We seek to serve those on the margins of our community without ever shaking off our conviction that the real business of the church is done on Sunday, in the space of worship songs and Bible-reading and preaching which will deepen our devotion to God and inform our knowledge of Him. It can feel as if we’re living in two worlds in the space of life in one congregation, barely understanding the strain we place on ourselves by our failure to appreciate the distance between them. Isn’t there a better, healthier way of approaching these issues?
Time for a bigger story
A recently launched campaign by evangelical leaders aims to address what is perceived as a problem of decreased ‘confidence in the Gospel’. A picture is painted of churches socially engaged, but experiencing ‘an apparent decrease in our confidence and competence to verbally explain the good news’. But perhaps that lack of assurance is not about the gospel per se but rather a narrow and privatised version of it which appears not to be fit for purpose when it confronts the harsh reality of life for the people we aim to serve. When we’re faced with someone who comes to a foodbank because they haven’t eaten in a week, it seems crass to tell them that their most pressing question is what would happen to their soul if they faced imminent death. When we’re speaking with someone about how they can cope with the insurmountable debt they’re in and the payments demanded by creditors, it doesn’t seem the right time to mention that God loved the world so much that He sent Jesus.
But what if the message we had to share was of a story bigger than just individual salvation? What if the hope we proclaimed extended beyond an eternal reward enjoyed in a time and place so far removed from our present reality?
What if the appeal we made went something like this? We all know that something is wrong with our world. Every day we witness the reality of sin and evil. We experience it in our own lives, in sickness, in the failure of relationships, in our own inability to break habits which are destructive for us and the people we share life with. And we see it when we turn on the news and learn of the latest story of suffering caused by injustice or natural disaster. But one day everything will be better, God is going to bring in a new future when all shall be made right. ‘Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:4, NRSV). And this future can be experienced right now, a glimpse of it can be seen in the church, the community of those who have trusted in Jesus and are putting on display a kingdom which welcomes male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3:28).
The kingdom has not fully arrived, and the task of bringing it belongs not to us but to God. However, we can order our lives in ways which look ahead to God’s complete redemption and renewal, ways which mean that crossing the threshold of our churches is also entering a glimpse and foretaste of something reconciled and at peace, the way everything will look one day.
A story which puts flesh on the bones of these ideas can be found in Luke 19’s report of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. Luke locates this incident near the end of his ‘travel narrative’, his account of the journey Jesus makes with His disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. Zacchaeus comes across as a figure who embodies many of the themes which Luke explores in his Gospel. He is rich, having made lots of money from his collusion with the Roman occupiers, but he is also an outsider, someone ostracised by his own people. In that respect, he is little different from the widow, tax collector, children and blind beggar of whom Luke has written in the previous chapter.xl Like the paralysed man in Luke 5, Zacchaeus is unable to get close to Jesus: ‘He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd’ (Luke 19:3).
When he finally comes face to face with Jesus, Zacchaeus responds to Him in a manner which is strikingly different from the rich ruler of Luke 18. Having been told by Jesus to ‘Sell everything you have and give to the poor’ (Luke 18:22), this privileged figure finds he cannot bring himself to make the sacrifices demanded from him. On the other hand, the outsider Zacchaeus promises to give half of his possessions to the poor, while also offering compensation of four times the amount he has taken fraudulently from his victims.
This remarkable story, one where poor victims are blessed by repentance and compensation from the privileged and where a rich man discovers freedom from the corrupt and exploitative practices in which he is caught up, finishes with one of the most famous statements of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel: ‘Today salvation has come to this house … For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’ (Luke 19:9-10).
The language used here is telling. ‘Salvation’ is one of Luke’s favourite words in his account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Time and again it is used in his Gospel to describe the difference made to those whose lives are changed by an encounter with Jesus: the healing of a man’s withered hand, the release of a man possessed by demons and the cleansing of a leper are just a few examples.xli Now we find the same terminology applied to this account of a move from greed to generosity, which also turns out to be a means of blessing and freedom for those who have been the victims of the tax collector’s exploitative practices.
Such liberation cannot come without a cost. In recent years, lots of our churches have been preoccupied with issues of human sexuality. These conversations have often been painful, but there is at least an increased willingness on the part of many to acknowledge the pain caused by old attitudes and the need for more honest dialogue. But can the same thing be said about our approach to money? How can we discuss this issue in congregations where those with savings worship alongside those in debt, where recently retired and affluent baby boomers stand shoulder to shoulder with a younger generation working longer hours and facing the prospect of living as ‘generation rent’ for the foreseeable future?
Given that what we earn and we do with it might now be more of a taboo than what goes on in the bedroom, these conversations would need to be approached sensitively, shoes taken off as we tread on each other’s holy ground. But, handled with care, they might be the means of creating a liberating honesty in our churches, a recognition that what enslaves us and dehumanises us often has as much to do with economics as it does with sexual morality, that our individualistic culture needs to be challenged in the name of Jesus who spoke of love for God and neighbour as the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:34-40).
Could it be that all this time we’ve been searching for connection and fulfilment in all the wrong places, a reflection of the ways we can so easily compartmentalise our lives? We think of worship on Sunday and the midweek discussion group as the places we go to in order to learn and deepen relationships, the places to ‘receive’, and then we ‘give’ in our social projects, often relating to people in more guarded ways which reflect the different expectations we have of our encounters with those whose immediate needs are being met.
But what if we entered into each activity of our day open to an encounter with God and other people, irrespective of the roles we are playing or the task in hand? Might we discover that connection is often a thing which happens naturally, when we’re least looking for it, and that a sense of personal contentment is among ‘these things … given to you as well’ (Matthew 6:33) when we make the kingdom our number one priority?
Samuel Smiles is no longer the celebrity figure which he was to our Victorian forebears. But his ideas, and those of his Victorian evangelical contemporaries, still cast their shadow over many of our churches, where the actions of the kingdom and a privatised view of faith all too often collide with each other. The moment has come when our thinking and talking needs to catch up with our doing. Until this happens, we will continue to experience the stress and strain which comes from living in two worlds. It’s time to bridge the gap.
- How do you react to the suggestion that some of us might have a set of beliefs which come closer to the term ‘prosperity gospel’ than we might care to admit?
- Can you think of ways in which our modern lives seem to be becoming more individualistic, in addition to the ones listed above? Are there practical steps which local churches could take to resist these changes?
- Do you agree with issues raised in this chapter concerning church small groups? How can we ensure that such groups look outwards as well as inwards?
- What do you think of the suggestion that when we proclaim the gospel we need to tell ‘a bigger story’, one which speaks about the kingdom as much as about individual salvation? Would this story be more or less attractive to the people you know?
- Is it really realistic to think that we could talk with honesty about money and our financial decisions in church? What would be the impact if we did?