Last week I participated in a panel discussion organised by the Fermanagh Churches Forum (FCF), ‘The Future of the Organised Church: Any Questions?’ The event, held at the Clinton Centre in Enniskillen, drew people from a variety of Christian denominations throughout Fermanagh.
The content of the discussion was shaped entirely by questions from those assembled, including queries about secularisation, female clergy, segregated education, the environment, and social justice.
The discussion was a good warm-up for an Irish School of Ecumenics ‘Education for Reconciliation’ course beginning tonight at the Clinton Centre called ‘Overcoming Sectarianism.’
This course is facilitated by Rev Dr Johnston McMaster and Dr Cathy Higgins and runs Thursdays from 7.30-9.30 pm for 5 weeks. All are welcome at the course, which costs £10 for the unwaged and £20 for the waged.
The discussion was chaired by FCF member David Bolton and the other discussants were:
- Rev. David Cupples – minister, Presbyterian Church, Enniskillen
- Sr. Elizabeth Fee – retired teacher, Sister of Mercy for over 40 years
- Zelda Kingston – lecturer, South West College and Methodist preacher, Enniskillen Circuit
- Fr. Peter O’Reilly – parish priest, St Michaels’ Catholic Church, Enniskillen
In a response to a post I wrote last week publicising the event, ‘Chris’ commented:
So, was there any report produced or minutes or whatnot? I was going to attend but decided against it. If I had of known my own PP [parish priest] was going to be there I’d have made the effort. Let me know, please?
This is my attempt to let Chris, and others, know.
I was intrigued by the type of questions that came from the audience, all of which seemed to me to focus on what the church could or should be doing to have a positive impact on the wider society.
It encourages me that there are Christians who care about socio-political issues – rather than simply being focused on getting people to sit in the pews on a Sunday morning.
In what follows I offer my own perspective on one of the questions asked. I plan to address some of the other questions in future blog posts.
Are there more Christians outside of the church than in it?
I loved this question, in part because one of my academic research interests is the ‘emerging church.’
The emerging church is a movement that has developed in large part as a critique of Protestant evangelicalism in the English-speaking, North Atlantic world (US, Canada, UK, Northern Ireland). The emerging church seems to be encouraging – sometimes intentionally, sometimes not – something of an exodus from established denominations.
Some people involved with the emerging church remain within traditional Christian denominations. But others have become convinced that those Christians institutions are so far gone – hypocritical, and concerned with all the wrong issues – that it is better to leave such churches than to lend legitimacy to them by staying.
For them, true Christianity is reflected in the way you live. And they believe that there are many people outside the churches that live more justly and with more love than professing Christians. I have some sympathy with this view.
What about community?
But Kate Doherty of the FCF said that she was uncomfortable with the individualistic notion of Christianity implied by the idea that there are more Christians outside of the churches than inside them.
She said that the New Testament describes the church as a body, implying that we need each other.
I think she’s right. In fact, in my research on the emerging church I’ve found that those who are disillusioned with the traditional churches prioritise creating communities of like-minded individuals.
These communities support people’s attempts to live what they see as more authentic Christian lives. It’s just that those communities operate outside existing church institutions and are almost invisible to the public’s naked eye. For instance, these groups are more like to meet in a pub rather than a church building on Main Street.
Christianity is more than kindness?
In addition, Rev Cupples argued that the idea that there are more Christians outside of the churches may reflect a ‘humanitarian understanding of Christianity’ that is all about being ‘kind.’
He said his Presbyterian congregation had conducted some informal surveys of people on the streets in Enniskillen and that 95% of them defined Christianity as being ‘kind to your neighbour.’
Rev Cupples wasn’t arguing against being kind to your neighbour, of course, but wished to make the point that Christianity was also about the worship of God.
Do Christians need to worship?
Fr O’Reilly added that kindness to one’s neighbour could not be sustained unless one’s faith was nourished in a worship environment.
But I think that while the experience of worship may be important for some people, much of what passes for worship in many Christian churches today actually dulls people’s enthusiasm to live lives of faith. As a younger member of the audience put it (and in many cases I agree),
‘If there’s anything that will kill your enthusiasm for Christianity, it’s a church service.’
This discussion led to yet another compelling question, articulated by David Bolton:
Are the churches useful organisations?
To which I ask:
- Useful for what?
- For contributing to social justice?
- For contributing to peace and reconciliation?
- For enriching people’s personal lives?
And if churches are found wanting in these areas, are there Christians outside of them making more significant contributions than the people in the pews?
Some Christians who have opted out of church have ‘given up’ on their brothers and sisters in the pews. Those sitting in the pews fear those outside as potential destroyers of Christianity.
What this discussion highlighted for me is that there are faithful Christians inside and outside of the churches who, unfortunately, usually talk across each other (or not at all) and therefore work at cross-purposes to one another.