Given that Rachel's blog has closed, I thought I'll look at the programme Reverse Missionaries on BBC 2. I hadn't seen the first one, but have just watched this one through.
The factory worker into medical missionary David Livingstone came from his and his father's adopted Congregationalism in Blantyre and (to some degree) worked with the local cultures in Africa to spread Christianity and hoped to destroy slavery. In reverse, in our time, Pastor John Chilimtsidya left his Blantyre of Malawi with a population of 728,285 for the original in Scotland in South Lanarkshire (population 17,505) on both a pilgrimage to his spiritual founder and an attempt to spread the word in a secular, tough, urban landscape.
As with so many churches now, the young have vanished from the Congregationalist church known as the Asda church in Blantyre. In contrast, at home, he is fully part of the general social situation of all ages that gravitates around Christianity and the Church.
What he found here was a sedate church that he felt needed to engage with the entertainment of the young and go to where they were. He found someone to assist him, not from the local Congregationalist church but one of the charismatic churches.
And that, to me, was the giveaway. Whilst the local Deacons and Minister struggled to agree to let Pastor John hold a service in a skatepark - and it wasn't exactly well attended - everything he was doing, recultured to South Lanarkshire, Scotland and Britain, was already well available in the unstated nearest charismatic church.
My PhD tutor was a specialist of Malawi and made many visits. He said how they simply could not understand that he was an atheist, as if there was something mentally wrong with him. Here the cultural shift was indeed in reverse. It's not that the people he encountered were intellectually atheist (if they were intellectually anything): it's that their lives simply ignored what would go on in the Asda church, or any other. Some had residual belief, but even the comment that church services were boring was based on a distant, and dying itself, cultural memory. One woman who had a faith and lost it for faith reasons - an unfortunate death - was helped towards recovering it and she turned up at the skate park. Some of them then followed on as the deacons wanted, into the grounds of the church. The point is that people's basic assumptions today do not involve the supernatural and rather we are pragmatic and practical - technology is human made and makes things possible.
Without sustained persistence, Pastor John's efforts will not have a result. But it is simply irrelevant anyway because the choice already exists.
Every Sunday I travel to the Unitarian church in Hull. It has a very small congregation, but its average age has tumbled down as a few younger people have joined and older ones have died. It is a close run thing how the church keeps going, but it does. And every Sunday I pass a Pentecostal church that, at that time, is opening its doors. It now provides feed material to satellite television. It intends to open a second church near, would you believe, Asda, in the north of the city. I reckon that two will be about the limit too. I'll be suprised if the second church fills up. Including all the denominations I doubt Hull has more than 4% of people in regular churchgoing. This is tougher territory than Glasgow because at least Glasgow has a sectarian faultline to maintain some interest in religion.
The fact is that the Pentecostal church appeals to a kind of spiritual entertainment. Bishop Carlton Pearson might have imported the charismatic style into Unitarian Universalism, but that's a fluke of his own journey into universalism. There are now African Unitarians, coming from other denominations because they seek autonomy. They are also charismatic, but they are quite conservative and Christian in a non-trinitarian way. For many churches, including mine, such a style is simply not possible. What is possible, however, as Pastor John said, is to use music, and I do that it breaking beyond a desire for most to stick to a Classic FM style. There are lots of spiritually meaningful secular and other songs in pop and rock music history to loosen things up.
As for Pentecostalism, if you notice: it is largely middle class and of a certain age. It is good for networking and good for partnering up (making romantic relationships). Its folk are quite individualist and market orientated. It also has a good turnover of members, in that as many people come in there is also a good number going out. In fact, there is a circuit of churches in the charismatic and evangelical style that have people transferring between them, a merry-go-round of new people that were somewhere else before. The car and church car park is an important element in this. Presumably older folks go elsewhere later.
Pentecostalism isn't everyone's taste. It is very informal, but not much use for the broad religious seeker. Some younger people seek something quite different. Others on the circuit might settle elsewhere with a bit more sophistication. In general, evangelicalism might attract some believers but liberalism also keeps those who go deeper into the questions.
And that travelling is what we find too, as dedicated liberals. Our latest two new and youngest people are already veterans of elsewhere. One was in Reformed Judaism, well down the road of investigating, but a little too conservative, and one was in the Anglicans. Very few are brand new seekers.
So what do we do? Well we, Unitarians, build on our Unique Selling Point, which is the individualism of the seeker and the interfaith basis of the resources available for the seeking. It is a place for questions. Secondly, we emphasise more music and art - image and symbol - and break out of some past habits or limitations. This Sunday a service taker will talk about the Baha'i Faith, something of a speciality of mine. I've no idea if he knows about the existence of Unitarian Baha'is (now and within Baha'i history itself - what they called the followers of Muhammad Ali, the Covenant Breaker brother of Abdul Baha). So I will listen with interest. When I attended a Bahai wedding they sang John Lennon's Oh My Love, so that will feature, and so will some actual Baha'i music. Once again, it makes us more flexible. And this is by me, a critic of much that has developed in the official Baha'i Faith (it is not owned by the Universal House of Justice!).
Pastor John would have saved himself much effort and anguish by going to the Pentecostalists, but he would have found them as much a part of the contemporary religious landscape as the Unitarians. The rest had better get more ecumenical and rationalise their plant and machinery.
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