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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Isn’t this just what a good parish priest does?

26 02 2009

One of the local clergy at a recent social gathering asked my wife what was so different about what I am doing. Why call it ‘pioneer ministry’? Isn’t it all just what someone might do as a parish priest?

Well my answer to that question is somewhat fuzzied up by my involvement with St Luke’s – a parish church.

But a difference has been crystallising in my mind in recent days.

I have seen more than one  model of parish ministry. I have seen someone operate as pastor/chaplain to a fair-sized congregation. I have observed another trying to grow their fair-sized congregation by moving into more of a chairman-like role – leading the leaders (or serving the servants if you prefer!) Those models are more prevalent, I think it’s fair to say, in more evangelical settings.

I’m not here to dis’ those approaches. They work to an extent if by doing so you can motivate your congregation for the work of mission. But you need a fair-sized congregation to start with. And it tends to result in an attractional model of mission. All well and good if you’re focused on the open dechurched. But if you’re attempting to make church happen out where the unchurched and closed dechurched people are at, it may well not get you very far.

Another model is a more incarnational one. Often, in more catholic leaning parishes, the priest sees her/his role as focused on the parish directly, not the parish through the congregation so much as in the previous models I’ve mentioned. That form of ministry places the priest in the community. It’s a ministry of presence. That’s perhaps closer to what I’m about in the pioneer role I have.

The difference, I think, is that those sorts of parish ministry tend to be about breadth of presence. You just are seen about in lots of different settings and so the community gets to know and trust you. Brilliant. But not the same as what I’m doing. I will be in a variety of settings over the next six months. But in order to identify/choose the one that will be the focus. A lot of what I do may well be about presence. But it will be sustained presence in one place. I will be looking to make *church* happen. But church as sharing a journey of spiritual exploration with all sorts of people – certainly not just those with a christian commitment. So it’s about depth of presence.

Now as I said that is complicated by my dual role, because it may be that one or two of the things I leave aside in making a choice about pioneer ministry, I pick up in relation to my parish role. But even that may well involve a new form of church community that doesn’t look quite like what church has traditionally been expected to look like. The St Luke’s post was advertised as requiring some form of fresh expression. We (the community at St Luke’s) don’t know as yet what form that will take, but we’re certainly asking the question…

ps. Sorry, this is a very Anglican post. I am an Anglican priest, and the language I have for exploring this topic is Anglican, but I know these issues are not being faced by the Church of England alone!