An article by Ally Barrett, Tutor for the Westcott Foundation, who will be leading a seminar on Occasional Worshippers at the Westcott Foundation on 18th November 2015 – there are still places available, please click here for a booking form.
The mission literature is as full of terms such as ‘unchurched’ and ‘dechurched’ as it is full of critiques exploring why such terms are problematic. Just as problematic is the term ‘churchgoer’.
The truth is that many people simply don’t fit into the category of ‘churchgoer’ or ‘non-churchgoer’ – statistical research has demonstrated that a significant factor in the decline in bums-on-seats church attendance figures is due not to their being fewer people who ever come, but due to a large proportion of people coming less often than previously.
‘Regular churchgoing’ means something different now from in generations past. This is particularly noticeable in churches where there is, for instance, a monthly all age service which may have its own congregation – regular attendance at that service means twelve times in a year, which is rather different from 52 times… An interesting test case for the changing definition of ‘regular’ is found in the way that ‘regular attendance’ gives a qualifying connection for marriage. Most of the clergy I asked reckoned that for these purposes monthly is regular.
This does have some implications, and not just for statistics, but for the place of worship in the life of those who attend it. The Sunday lectionary, though it works on a standalone basis, works best when there is some continuity week by week – working through the gospels and epistles allows themes that preoccupied their writers to be heard again and again in different ways, and this repetition can help create a coherent landscape (the breadth of scripture) in which the foreground (any particular reading) may be enjoyed and explored. The changing of the seasons, the arc of salvation history that weaves through the church year, and the way that that grand liturgical pattern is reflected in microcosm during each act of worship from gathering/advent to dismissal/Pentecost into the ordinary time of life after the church service – these may be slower to take root in the heart and mind when there is only a monthly service in which to plant and nurture the seeds.
It is also worth noting that the guidelines for the Church of England’s relatively new Additional Eucharistic Prayers for when significant numbers of children are present are clear that this provision is not intended for weekly use – in other words, the intention is that these prayers should not be all that a congregation experiences. Which is all well and good if everyone comes every week and the AEPs are used only monthly – but for those whose only experience of church is the all age service, those prayers will indeed be their diet. This is only one manifestation of a larger liturgical dilemma: common worship, with its vast range of resources, assumes that churches will use a variety of material, so that during the course of attending church regularly the congregation will experience a balanced liturgical theology. But because we know that many people do not come to church all that often, there is an impetus to make each act of worship doctrinally or theologically complete – each Eucharistic Prayer therefore would need to contain a brief, but comprehensive summary of salvation history as the content of and motivation for our thankfulness. This tension is not going away.
And what of those who are regular churchgoers in that they attend church regularly once a year at the village carol service or on Remembrance Sunday? Or those who go to church for baptisms, weddings and funerals? Can such ‘occasional’ services (in the sense that they happen occasionally, and on particular special occasions) provide a balanced liturgical diet in themselves, and, if not, can they still be a place of transformation, or at least a place where the seeds of transformation might be sown?
Perhaps the church is betwixt and between: on the one hand we are partly working a model that assumes regular, even weekly attendance, and on the other hand we are responding to the reality that for many people a church service is a one-off event. We may subscribe (based on our own experience) to the theory that worship is formative of our faith and our life of discipleship when it functions as a drip-feed, week by week and year by year, and yet we may strive each week to lead an act of worship that is, by itself, transformative.
In the above paragraphs there is a striking omission: God. There are, in fact, many works of liturgical theology that treat liturgy and worship as something that can be described on a purely human level, with valuable insights from psychology, semiotics (and other meaning-theories), ritual studies (how rituals work in human communities) and more. But whether an act of worship is formative or transformative can be understood not only in terms of psychology or cognition, but in terms of how such an event may (or may not) facilitate a (deeper) encounter with God. An exploration of the nature of worship from a faith perspective, rather than as a merely human phenomenon, must assume not only a theistic worldview but specifically a theistic anthropology. And if we work on the basis of a theistic worldview and anthropology, then we will quickly find that the regular or occasional public worship of the church is by no means the only location of transformative encounter. Some would go as far as to argue that the primary place of transformation is not so much the gathered church as it is the world (generally) and in the specific life experience of human beings: work,
relationships, parenthood, death, traveling, boredom, sport, and so on.
Should worship then respond to the ways in which God may already have been encountered outside the church walls? I think it should. People should not have to leave their experience of God in the world at the church door in order to subscribe to a liturgical expression of what that encounter ‘should’ be like. But the converse also holds true. What takes place in worship can provide a tried and tested language through which human life experience can be articulated in the context of God. The psalms are perhaps the supreme expression of that conversation that draws life and faith together, but they are not the only expression of it. (My own research hopes to uncover more areas of resonance as well as dissonance, particularly for those who are less familiar with the church’s modes of expression and established symbols, and particularly in regard to how attendance at a worship event may reinforce or undermine any sense of belonging or membership – but that’s another story).
The best of our liturgy continues in the tradition of the psalms, with metaphors and symbols that resonate on the horizontal plane (with what happens to us and what we do in the rest of the week) vertically (in the way that we perceive and engage with the action of God) and through time (drawing on the tradition of the faith that has been passed down the generations and received by the contemporary church, and in turn handing that tradition on either more or less as we found it). Worship can be seen, then, as a multi-dimensional event that may be an agent of transformation along any of its axes, and into which transformative impetus may come via any of its axes. No wonder so much is asked of the church’s liturgy, and no wonder it so often, and in hard-to-define ways, it seems not to have quite lived up to its potential or its purpose, and no wonder that when it’s good, it’s really good.
What, then, can we reasonably expect of the liturgy, especially when it comes to those who do not normally attend church, and who therefore may taste only a small slice of the liturgical-theological pie, or to whom many of the scriptural or traditional metaphors and symbols are unfamiliar? And do the answers to that question depend on what the church hopes for in their brush with the liturgy, or upon the intentions they themselves may bring with them? People who do not regularly come to church, but who may come on occasion are highly diverse in their motivations – they may come through an invitation (to a baptism or wedding, perhaps) or through a personal / emotional connection (a funeral or all souls service), or out of a sense of tradition (a carol service) – these are only a grossly simplified handful of possibilities. And their reasons for not coming more often are probably even more varied than their reasons for coming ‘that one time’.
Equally their experience of God outside church is diverse, and they may well not be able to articulate it to themselves (because matters of the heart and soul are hard to express) let alone in any kind of descriptive language that the church might recognise. The Church House research on Christenings found that words such as ‘meaningful’ and ‘special’ were indicators of the way that life experience and liturgical experience at a Christening converged in a positive way. Doing Christenings in such a way that that point of convergence is maximised is one current mark of the work that the church is undertaking in this whole area of liturgy and life and mission. A carol service, on the other hand, has a very different set of parameters and intentions, and will generate very different hopes and meanings; Remembrance Sunday is different again. As planners and leaders of worship, how do we learn to be attentive to tradition and culture, intentions and hopes, points of connection and faultlines, in order to lead worship both regularly and occasionally that brings people closer to God, whatever their starting point?
These are some of the issues that we will be looking at during the Occasional Worshippers seminar on 18th November at the Westcott Foundation. There are no easy answers, but through an exploration of the big questions and reflection together on our practice (particularly where our intentions and reality either wonderfully converge or are frustratingly dissonant) I hope we may be able to draw out some real theological and practical wisdom on the many and varied opportunities and challenges presented by those who come to church occasionally.
Please do come to the seminar if you can – you are also welcome to leave comments, questions and reflections on your own experience here.