Losing faith in the pub

23 01 2011

After another Sunday night in the pub pretty much on my own, I am beginning to wonder whether this is an idea that has had its day. Indeed, I wonder whether it ever really had legs.

I’ve persisted with what became known as ‘PUB:FAITH’ for a year now. The idea is that on a Sunday night in a city centre pub I host a conversation for spiritually inclined people who ‘don’t do church’. I start each evening with a ‘skinny ritual’ — a brief, symbolic activity to lead us into ‘spirited conversation’. I usually choose a topic based on the Church of England lectionary, after thinking about the broadly spiritual issues reflected in one of the set readings for each Sunday. My question as I approach the text is, ‘What are the experiences, questions or challenges that non-religious spiritual people might connect with?’

There have been nights when there’s been a good turnout and a good conversation. But in the main, most of the people who’ve come have been people who do ‘do church’. They haven’t all been finding their experience of church to be entirely helpful. And there have been some, even some who have come reasonably frequently, who are not churchgoers or people of acknowledged Christian faith at all. But I am not now, and haven’t been since the outset, making many connections with people who are, in the terrible churchy jargon, ‘unchurched’ or even many who are, as yet, ‘de-churched’.

I value what I’ve been able to share with people who have come, and I’m grateful for those who have supported me by turning up. But if it doesn’t really do what it says in the tin, I’m not sure it’s what I should be doing with my time. Especially if, as now, I am only seeing one person each week and that person is well connected with another nearby church.

I haven’t made as much effort to promote it as perhaps I might. I have advertised — just recently, in fact. I placed an ad in a local publication that goes to 10,000 homes. Nobody came or even made contact as a result. In fact it’s since that ad went out that it’s been the quietest it’s ever been! I haven’t ever done the other thing I’ve vaguely pondered doing — handing out postcards in the Guildhall Square. But even if I had, I would have been likely to reach far fewer people than 10,000. I send out an invitation each week on Facebook. But it’s a sad reflection of just how churchy have been the circles I’ve moved in that overwhelmingly the people I’ve invited are Christians, or even fellow clergy. I guess I just thought that the website and word of mouth might lead people to come along.

Whatever the failings or inadequacies of my marketing strategy, though, in the end I wonder whether it’s just a flawed idea. Are non-religious, but spiritually inclined people really going to want to go to the pub to speak with some vicar bloke they’ve never met before?

I probably wouldn’t, to be honest. And it’s not really about meeting people where they are. It’s still a ‘come to me’ sort of approach, even if the place I’m inviting people to come to is a pub instead of a church.

There have been some good times. And I’ve learnt through the experience. But maybe it is pretty much dead and I just need to put it out of its misery.

Maybe you think I’m being hard on myself. And to be honest I am feeling a little despondent about it. But if this sort of work is going to achieve anything, I need to be really robustly truthful with myself and name my failures. I’m not beating myself up over it. Lesson learned. Move on.

That is itself a substantial challenge. What do I move on to? I’m not talking about moving on from my current post. I mean what do I do instead to meet spiritual questers who are making their journey outside of the Church. Not to show them the error of their ways but to join the conversation and offer some insight from the Christian Tradition. And to open that tradition up to challenge, question and reinterpretation in the light of people’s experience. Real, risky dialogue is what I’m seeking. I’ll share some thoughts about that in the coming days.

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How do I meet SABRINA?

19 11 2009

How do I meet SABRINA? That’s the question that’s occupying my mind at the moment.

Not the Teenage Witch – well not especially. No, actually it’s SABRINAs (plural) of either gender. By which I mean Spiritually Active But Religious-Institution-Non-Affiliated. Another way of putting it is SBNRSpiritual But Not Religious.

I hope that’s a self-explanatory term. I’m looking to hook up with people who are interested in spirituality or actively engaging their spirit, but who – as some of my publicity for my Sunday night pub conversations says – don’t do church.

Why?

Well first off, let me state clearly and categorically, not to convert them. It’s not my business to convert anyone. That’s not because I don’t think ‘conversion’ can happen in the conversational space I’m trying to create. But if, as I believe, the mystery we call ‘God’ is going to be active in that space then conversion is something that can and will happen for all and any of us. To put it more simply, I’m not trying to meet people and open up a conversation in order to persuade people to become christians. I’m not trying to gather an audience to hear me preach. This isn’t backdoor Alpha. There’s no programme or agenda that includes a vision of moving people from one place to another along a particular route. I just want to open up a conversation and see what happens.

So that’s why not. It still leaves the question of why?

My answer is to do with the mission of the Church but also something more personal. As you’re reading this, you might discover that what I’ve said so far seems more designed to answer the question for people who don’t have explicit christian faith than for those who do. I’m trying to reassure SABRINAs that I’m not out to get them. I’m genuinely interested in their experience and to create a space for genuine conversation.

That’s because as I’ve said before, what I’ve often encountered in churches is that people can be infantilised by learning a language that shapes and to a degree controls their world view. It’s very difficult to articulate in that space real doubt or struggle or, perhaps more subtly, to celebrate real moments of grace. I think we often miss them because we’re conditioned to look for them in very specific, structured ways that doesn’t help us to recognise the Spirit blowing where she pleases. Speaking personally, I find conversation with people who haven’t been conditioned in that way more stimulating, challenging and real. So one aspect of why is, to be honest, for me. It’s part of the attraction of working outside the bounds of what normally constitutes church.

But I am being paid by the Church. This isn’t just about me having the sort of conversations I enjoy and want to stimulate. So if it isn’t about getting bums on pews, what does it do for the Church’s mission? Well, it is possible of course that some bums might find their way onto pews through this. I’m not setting out to make that happen, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. I would celebrate if someone who was regularly part of the conversation found faith where they wouldn’t have said they had it before. I would celebrate too if there emerged from this a little community of people who were wanting to take a Jesus-shaped life more seriously. But again, I don’t think it’s even possible for me to make that happen, so I’m certainly not seeing it as my job. That allows me to relax and let God do whatever God does in the midst of that. I hope it allows others to relax too and not worry that they’ll come under any sort of pressure to adopt any particular belief system.

So do I bring anything to the table other than creating a space for this sort of conversation? I think so. Because the church isn’t all bad news as far as spirituality is concerned. That’s the great shame of our (somewhat deserved) bad press. The christian tradition does have a wealth of resources to offer those pursuing a spiritual life – particularly one earthed in real, everyday experience. What I can do, therefore, is to put those resources, indeed christian faith itself back on the agenda in the broader conversation about spirituality. At least for those who join me. There’s also a gentle challenge that I can offer to people to think about the value of being in the stream of a broad tradition, rather than simply being a free-floating individual. There’s something about the ‘bigger-than-usness’ of faith that means there’s value in negotiating faith in the midst of a community that includes not just those immediately present but those who have gone before too. (In the language of the Church: the Communion of Saints.)

So far, the group, being mostly people I know already, is numerically dominated, by people who would call themselves ‘christian’. (As I’ve said before, that’s a descriptor that is not always helpful.) I say numerically, because I don’t think that so far, those people are dominating. They have got it when it comes to the attitude to different viewpoints that I’m attempting to cultivate. And I value them all being there. But if I’m just gathering interesting/ed christians together, then it does kind of defeat the object.

So I’m going, somehow, to try and make contact with SABRINA and her friends. Perhaps a website, perhaps some cards to give out, perhaps some media stuff. And just some of that providence sort of stuff that can happen when you just hang about and meet people. I’ll let you know how it goes…