Friday, 23 March 2012

Reverse Missionary (but just pop down the road)

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.


Joe Daniels said...

There was a mention in the programme about young kids having things like ipods, ie being materialistic. This is a red herring. The ground has been prepared for decades by communists and their fellow-travellers to remove religion from public life, and this is why it has all but disappeared from private life.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Communists? What communists? There are enough churches on the ground to blow any communists away. If you mean people forced over time to live in poverty and seek collective politics as a means of redress then that's part of being this-worldly and effective. Denominations were invariably middle class.

Anonymous said...


Just a few points to make here.

Of course Pastor John's assistant was from another church - there are hardly any young people at the Congregational church he visited, so what else could he do? The lack of young people there was the focal point of the programme!

You also seem to be saying that because there are some young people at the charismatic church in a neighbouring area (not the same area, I think), the Congregationalists have no right to develop their own work with young people. That's a strange attitude. Shouldn't every church want to work on developing its presence in the community? After all, it's not as if they're all fighting over the same few people - there are plenty of people in that community who don't have connections with any church.

I agree with you on some points, however. It makes little sense for two churches to try to be clones of each other. But I don't think that's what was being attempted. In fact, I was quite suprised that the show didn't actually take us to the young woman's charismatic church to show us 'how it's done'. I imagine that the TV makers didn't want viewers to compare the two churches in that way. The comparison they wanted to push was between two churches of the same heritage, one in Malawi and one in Scotland, and quite right too. Pastor John was deeply committed to the legacy of Livingstone; he didn't make any mention of 'Pentecostalism'. And the programme sensibly highlighted Pastor John's realisation that he couldn't expect the Scottish church to be a clone of his own church, but that he had to be culturally sensitive.

I do think the show focused too much on liveliness as the defining factor in attracting young people. Theological exploration was only hinted at, and nurturing, small groups, etc. were absent. But Pastor John was only around for a short time: those things will have to be developed over the long term by the church as part of their strategy. It's a pity that we don't know what kind of follow-up there's been.

It was good that Pastor John wasn't in Scotland to make judgements about the local church's theology - and you surely would've disapproved if he'd tried to do that! Yes, he was somewhat critical of the local church for it's unwillingness to get stuck in to the job of reaching out to the community, but his focus wasn't on criticism, but on how to stimulate people's interest in Christianity in a very basic way. He wisely left deeper theological issues to one side. (Or at least, those views weren't left in the final edit.)

Finally, I think your explanation of Pentecostalism is rather too dismissive. And it's a bit rich for a Unitarian to criticise Pentecostalism for being 'middle class'! I do understand that you disagree with Pastor John's religious beliefs, but there's nothing stopping more liberal religious groups (or Muslims, or Jews, etc.) from setting up worshipping communites in areas like this. There's room for more diversity.