file000881450729Surviving the death of the tradition that raised you.

It can be difficult growing up as a Christian, perhaps particularly an evangelical.

But if that’s tricky, for many, worse is yet to come.

For many who are born into an evangelical tradition, or were nurtured through it, a spiritual or existential crisis which eventually propels them out of that tradition is profoundly unsettling.

Often, such is the singular emphasis of evangelicalism, that to be anything ‘other’ than evangelical, is not to be Christian at all. And for an evangelical, to not be a Christian can literally mean a fate worse than death.

But there are more approaches to Christianity than the one enshrined in contemporary evangelicalism. The broader Christian religious and spiritual tradition is one that has spent 2000 years in development, and has a vast array of  schools of thought. Some ancient, some modern, some post-modern.

Whatever reason may have propelled the newly ‘ex-evangelical’ from the bosom of the church, it doesn’t necessarily need to mean that Christianity as a whole is lost to them forever. And for some people, that’s important: research shows people who no longer identify as Christian, often maintain some of their key beliefs and motivations. The person of Jesus, for instance continues to get enormous respect from a variety of directions, very often people continue to believe in a god of some sort, albeit perhaps not the God they were taught about. Alternatively some continue to believe in the kind of God that evangelicalism taught them about, and they have come to reject that idea of God, often for very good reasons.

While evangelicalism does a number of things very well, it has its weaknesses too, just as every tradition does. For instance, one of its great strengths is that many of the great social reforms have come from evangelicals, and today its often people from that tradition who are actively engaged in issues of social justice. What helps to keep people motivated in engaging in this kind of activity though, is precisely the sort of thing that can cause other problems. There’s a single mindedness that spurs many on to great things, but which doesn’t always handle questions well. A crisis of faith, a period of mental ill health, profound existential angst, questions over gender identity or sexuality, disillusionment with a leader, any of these can prove to be very difficult for an evangelical church to manage,  and these are frequently ‘exit points’ for the disenchanted.

And there are other things too, profound moral convictions can come into conflict with the kind of theology expounded in evangelical churches: environmental issues, human sexuality, politics, and many more ideas become flashpoints for those struggling with an evangelical identity.

Image result for christ of maryknoll by robert lentz ofm
Christ of Maryknoll, by Robert Lentz OFM

So what becomes of those, who some describe as ‘ex-vangelicals’? Very often feelings of disillusionment lead to a wholesale rejection of church, and they find themselves removed from the embrace of community altogether. Some find that this suits them, that in fact church had been, or had latterly become, more of a hindrance than a help in the development of their personal spirituality, or corporate involvement in matters of great importance. Others find a new home in another tradition, yet others decide that not just evangelicalism, but all of Christianity has become a toxic brand, and they want no more to do with any of it. They say there’s nothing like an ex-smoker to bemoan the ills of smoking…

But where an interest remains, it can be very difficult for a church leaver to reconnect with Christianity in a meaningful form, years of hearing how ‘other’ traditions are, if not evil, at best only ‘kind of’ Christian, can mean that one is disturbed by the idea of engaging with any of them. Quakerism, for example, which has provided a home for many who have left the evangelical church, is roundly derided in some quarters of the church for its open stance on matters theological and social. Mystical traditions, which actually share a huge amount with charismaticism, are distrusted and seen as being aligned with ‘new age’ thinking – a huge evangelical bug bear. Apophatic or negative theologies are often thought of as ‘atheism lite’, or even atheism writ large. In other words: not Christian. Orthodox and Catholic traditions are often seen as ‘too religious’ or ‘idolatrous’ (because of course, evangelicalism has no idols…) Process theology, which offers (among other things) a new way of looking at the power of God, is considered heresy by conservative evangelicals.

But in all of these traditions and more, there are profound treasures to be discovered, and the ex-vangelical can find in progressive and liberal circles, in Orthodoxy and other traditions cadres of dedicated, engaged, love filled people just like them, who are struggling through life with questions, doubts, sincere commitments, phobias, and querks. As well as all the other usual collection of failures, mess-ups, and disaster zones that constitute the human race.

If you or your friends are struggling with these issues, and want to explore what kind of tradition or theology you could begin to engage with, I’d love to come and talk with you. It’s not about finding something we all agree with, after all, we all have different opinions, and our opinions change over time. That’s kind of the point.

My work and my ongoing research has led me in to contact with a wide range of traditions and theologies which represent something of the breadth of Christianity as we know it. I also identify with, and have a profound sympathy for those who leave, or have left evangelicalism. I now offer ‘house conferences’ which are basically privately hosted talks and discussions, on precisely this subject. If you are interested in hosting a house conference, drop me a line and lets talk.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to post a short series of blogs about ideas and places that may be worth you exploring after evangelicalism. I’ll also aim to answer questions as I go, so feel free to tweet me, facebook message me via my page, or bung me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

file1951346280860.jpgRecent reports that show a growing number of young people identifying as having ‘no religion’ are evidence not of growing secularism, but actually of a society which post secular.

New research, by Prof Stephen Bullivant of St Mary’s University, details percentages of 16–29 year olds across 22 countries who identify as having ‘no religion’. Of the countries studied, only eight had a majority of young people who self–identify has having a religion.

In the UK, the figures are clear, and follow a common narrative: Seventy percent of British young people identify as having no religion. This is not, contrary to some press coverage, a shock statistic. The movement in societal terms has been clear for some time, Brits, particularly young ones, have increasingly identified as having no religion.

The Church of England records what it describes as the ‘Usual Sunday Attendance’ at its churches, and noted by 2013 that the percentage of English residents who attend church had halved, from three to 1.5 per cent of the total population over a period of forty years. Similar trends are to be found within various contexts, including in America, where church attendance has historically been high, and where a growing proportion of the population are now reporting that they have never attended a church service.

But not attending church, or having ‘no religion’ is certainly not the same thing as having no beliefs, as other studies have shown: According to one report, approximately 30% of those who belong to no religion at all, claim to believe in life after death (something that not even all church going Christians necessarily believe).

Further to that, 7% of self-professed atheists believe in angels; and approximately one in four of the UK population believe in reincarnation, including one in seven atheists.

This social change has occurred during a period of time in which British culture has become notably more diverse, with a growth in the number of religious and cultural identities reported in surveys. Some of the ‘new’ religious identities are ‘joke’ or ‘parody’ religions, but not all. Some of the new religious identities, even the more playful ones, that have come into existence, have at their core a sense of Tillichian ‘ultimate concern’, making them genuine in a theological sense.

At the same time as this change has taken place, social attitudes have altered to become more tolerant and accepting of diversity, with an acceptance of, or preference for, spirituality over religion: other research has shown that ‘nones’ are generally ambivalent towards the church, regarding it perhaps as more inconsequential than negative. Its not so much that the church has been violently rejected, or rebelled against, just that it has been found to have little meaning. It may be useful in certain times (major tragedies etc.), but on the whole it has little of importance to offer, and certainly doesn’t endow the attendee with the kind of symbolic capital that it used to.

This social climate, which allows for or encourages a liquidity or plurality of belief, underlayed with a marked decline in the size, scope and power of the mainstream religions (particularly Christianity), rather than being purely secularist, is indicative of post secularism. Within a postsecular society, religious thought continues to play an important part, actively shaping ‘social life at different levels and in a variety of forms’ (Habermas) but no longer acts as the dominant or defining narrative.

Rather than seeing the total destruction of religious activity and belief as one might expect to be the result of the process of secularisation, what we are actually seeing is the changing shape of belief, and its movement away from the contained or institutionalised form. For Christians, this may pose a challenge, but should not necessarily be unwelcome.

The idea of inclusion seems so simple, and yet the practicalities of it grow increasingly complex.

Working for a charity which has inclusivity as part of its core ethos, I hear too often the voices of those who feel excluded, for one reason or another.inclusion_church_shareable

And if it isn’t one reason, it really is another – we seem constantly creative in our ways of creating barriers and walls between one another. Then of course, if we are committed to bringing down those walls, then we become exclusive of those who are not so inclined.

It is for these reasons that I like to talk about inclusion, to discuss, openly and honestly, who feels included, and who excluded. When do you feel included, by whom, and how?

Close to where I live, on the edge of my council estate, where there should be an access road on to the bordering private housing estate, there is a big metal wall. It genuinely looks like something from the cold war, and it probably is about that old. Whenever I go past that wall, or point it out to someone, I am forced to reflect on what that wall says about our society, and what it means to those who live on my side of it.

And now politicians talk of walls, and no fly zones, and of who belongs where…

Inclusivity seems so simple, yet it is so difficult to put in to practise.

So this is why I’m excited to be part of a day conference where we will talk, simply, openly, explicitly, about what it means for people to be included in church. Mostly, over the last few years, the ‘inclusivity in church’ conversation has revolved around sexuality, as part of a corrective to a collective obsession with something Jesus had remarkably little to say about.

But while this remains a live issue, there are plenty of other issues of inclusivity in church – ranging from disability to gender, and from learning needs to poverty – very much the elephant in the room, so far as I am concerned.

Of course a conference about inclusivity is by its very nature somewhat exclusive, not many people are as keen on conferences as me, not everybody can get to Grimsby (even if it is the centre of my world), and not all of us can speak or read English well enough to follow the discussion.

But it’s a starting point for some, and a stepping stone on the journey for others, and if you would like to join us, then please do. There is a small charge for the conference, but if you haven’t got the cash, then its fine, we have a free ticket code too.

In an ideal world there would be a multitude of voices, all talking about how we can make our churches more inclusive, and working out plans of action to help one another do just that. But that’s the simplest form – and we all know it will be more complicated than that, inclusivity always is.

StateLibQld_2_179851_1913_Model_T_Ford_takes_a_couple_off_on_their_honeymoon,_1913
Ford’s Model T began the mass availability era in cars, which are now in the market era.

Medical services, education, churches, and a variety of other institutions are experiencing a kind of existential crisis in the UK, and despite their obvious differences, there’s a common underlying cause for all of them.

Before the inevitable objection: yes of course the picture isn’t exactly the same everywhere: some places demonstrate the crisis much more distinctly than others, churches are an easy example, some have dwindled to next to nothing, others burst at the seams.

Across the board, proposed remedies abound, most of them involve resource, usually money, some of them seem to work, others demonstrably don’t – the same is true across the sectors.

What appears to be missing in some areas, perhaps most obviously the church, though, is a recognition that all of these institutions are dealing with the same set of problems. This set of problems arise from the fundamental paradigm shift from elite, through mass, to market. An easy way to demonstrate that shift is with education, even recently, education was very much something by and for the elite. That’s not to say that ‘ordinary’ people didn’t participate in education at all, of course they did. Ordinary people often learned to read and write, and some reaped the rewards of higher education to an extent, but fundamentally it was about the elite, they were the best educated, they had access to the best schools and the best universities. They had the capital (in all its various sorts).

With the era of industrialisation however, came a new need for mass education, and a new means of delivering it too – most notably it began to be made widely available free of charge. Slowly this filtered all the way through the education system, eventually becoming fulfilled only, I would say, in the second half of the 20th century. People like me, and others roughly categorised as Generation X, certainly experienced mass education, as did some of the Baby Boomers. But arguably, and this is a moot point I suppose, elite education was still phasing out for most of the 1960s, obviously it remains in pockets, as some private schools and ‘top tier’ universities demonstrate.

Mass education was very much seen as education for the common good, in part it was ideologically driven, just as the NHS was set up according to a common good ideology, and just as Bibles (long before) had begun to be made widely available in languages which could be read by the ordinary person, and eventually distributed free of charge. There was then a very rapid transition from mass education to marketised education, which is very much where we are now. Since the late 1980s in the UK, education has become branded and competitive, some providers appearing to lose a sense of the common good as they fight for market share and league table placement. In some places this is much more pronounced than others, you may have experienced it yourself.

In the same way other institutions have also transitioned from elite, to mass, to market. The mass era had everything to do with industrialisation, and much of what we did or do reflects that, even down to buildings that look like factories (as opposed to ‘elite’ era buildings which bore a resemblance to palaces or mansions). But while the transition into mass from elite took a long time to happen, and then worked its way though over a reasonably considerable period, the movement to market has happened with astonishing rapidity, leaving many confused and unable to keep up.

hillsongs
Successful megachurch ‘brands’ such as Hillsongs exemplify one form of the marketisation of church.

This movement too has been shaped by technology, in this case the birth and growth of the internet: all of a sudden choice is massively enhanced, and availability is entirely different. Our high street shops are dealing with the same issue, while they operate ‘as’ market, they are ill equipped to compete in a truly ‘marketised’ era, they struggle to compete with online competitors. Hence we see an increasing amount of ghost high streets, and empty shop fronts.

The other big factor of course has been a move towards a greater embrace, from Thatcher onwards, of neo-liberalism, and its prioritisation of the market. Education, healthcare, spirituality, all these things have become understood primarily as consumables, just as is the very act of shopping itself.

As institutions struggle to realise, accept and adapt to this, the existential crisis they experience (notwithstanding the individual differences) will certainly continue.

Did you like this post? Please leave your thoughts in the comments, and don’t forget to share it on your social media platforms – let’s take the power back.