By Jonathan Murden
There was quite a stir in religious media earlier this year at the announcement that the Church of Scotland was to introduce online baptisms. This was, as it turned out, a case of journalistic overenthusiasm. A report had been published that discussed the possibilities of online membership, and referenced “access to the sacraments whilst not being physically present in the congregation.” Though this was not the radical change reported in the media, the story does, to a degree, reflect the anxiety of many churches in contemporary Britain.
The backdrop for this is the unflinching decline of Christianity in the UK, both in its practice and in its wider societal influence. In 2014, the proportion of the population who identified as having no religion was, for the first time, higher than that of self-described Christians – 48.5% to 43.8% respectively- according to NatCen’s British Societal Attitudes Survey. In light of this shift, many churches feel that they need to adapt if they are to survive.
One attempt at adaptation is the Fresh Expressions initiative, originally launched by the Church of England in 2005. Fresh Expressions encourages new congregations gathering in homes, cafes, and other non-traditional settings, creating churches that aim to be reflexive to the needs of the communities they are situated in. One of their concerns is with the perception that the church is irrelevant in today’s world, which they see as responsible for Christianity’s decline. This is also reflective of a wider concern, on both sides of the Atlantic, with image. Sleek branding, an active social media presence, and a live band (possibly with a light show and fog machine) are absolute necessities for many contemporary evangelical congregations.
However, the evidence shows that such strategies are largely ineffectual. A study carried out by Rev. Dr John Walker has found that whilst Fresh Expressions churches could “reinvigorate” the parish churches from which they emerge, “they are no better at attracting the non-churched than parish churches, and both fresh expressions and parish churches grow through exactly the same process.” Research carried out by Barna Group in America reveal that 67% of millennials would prefer a ‘classic’ church to a ‘trendy’ one. The idea that all the church needs is a style update, in order to reclaim a central role in the twenty first century, does not line up with the data.
In many ways, whilst the story of online baptisms turned out to be false, it could be seen as a parable for one kind of Christian engagement with wider culture. The whole point of a baptism is the physicality of it. Whether total immersion or sprinkling, your body is touched by the water as a physical enacting of the Holy Spirit’s seal upon you. Stripping the sacrament of this physicality would be to offer people a sham; more accessible perhaps, but what is it you’re actually giving them access to? Do some Christian attempts to respond to the twenty first century come across as superficial, more show than substance?
Perhaps, but there’s more to the story than this. An instinct towards innovation can lead to a disregard or dilution of Christianity, but equally, sometimes these innovations can be a form of return to the faith. For instance, some LGBTQ+ Christians, who often feel excluded from their local congregations, have used the internet and social media to create communities of their own for fellowship and discipleship. Without these technological innovations, many of these people would give up on their faith, and even their lives all together. Throughout Christian communities, the internet has allowed groups previously denied a voice – LGBTQ+ people, but also women and ethnic minorities – a platform, and we are yet to see how this will shape Christianity in the future.
If you’ve spent much time observing religion on the internet, you’ll probably also have noticed the presence of all sorts of unconventional practitioners re-appropriating the Christian tradition; ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’, ‘seekers’, and those who describe themselves as Christian but are too out there for most congregations. This is not so much a case of how the church is engaging with the twenty first century, but how the twenty first century is engaging with the church, and sometimes this comes in surprisingly traditional forms. Pilgrimages, for example, have seen a recent revival, with a 14% increase in visitor numbers to holy places across the UK since 2013, according to The Spectator. A significant number of these pilgrims are not religious, and Guy Hayward from the British Pilgrimage Trust points out the universal appeal of these journeys. Ironically, the things many modern people find appealing in Christianity – a tangible connection with nature and the land, the community, the rituals – are the things some Christians seem so ready to abandon.
Photograph by Charlotte90T via flickr