By Nigel Rooms, Partnership for Missional Church leader at Church Mission Society
One of the paradoxes of being a Christian in the Western world is that there is freedom of religion, yet it seems many Christians resist the idea of practising their faith in ways that can be observed publicly.
Faith, a private matter
There is a long story behind how this situation has come about. During the Enlightenment period (approx. 1650–1950) in Europe (and later North America and in other “Western” places) the individual, rational, thinking mind became of the highest public value. The scientific method, which claimed to be objective, reigned supreme. So, facts (which can be proven by the scientific method) and values (which can’t) came to be separated. Facts were allowable in public, values in private.
Religious faith (despite many valiant attempts over the centuries) cannot be proven via the scientific method. And so religion must be relegated to the private sphere, which is why you often hear politicians say that religious people should not interfere in public matters. Incidentally, some people think this is also why women tend to be more religious than men – since men have, until very recently, controlled the public world of “hard” facts, while women concentrated on the private, family home and “soft” values.
So, with some notable exceptions, the Christian Church in the West has given in to this “social imaginary” of how things are organised – faith is considered a private matter. In the Partnership for Missional Church (PMC) process, we help congregations take a close look at themselves, their beliefs and actions, kind of like a mirror. The data from across the UK shows that the kind of congregations we work with exhibit quite high levels of individual and privatised spirituality within the boundary of the church.
And some (though fewer) people are involved as individuals in their wider community outside the church.
However, churches rarely act in public in the name of their church. We tend to exhibit our faith when we go to church, but for the rest of the time it largely remains hidden. We are rarely caught being Christian out in public.
I’m not arguing for forcing our faith to the surface, turning every conversation we have to being about Jesus. This might work for some, but to many these days such an approach comes across as false and overbearing. Somewhere in between hiding our faith when we are in public and imposing it upon others is a way of being Christian that pays attention to what God is doing. God is always at work, creating a trustworthy world, always forming kind, loving, gentle community. After all, that is who God, as Trinity, is.
In our world today, there are many forces at play which block people’s view of God at work in our world. Here are just three:
- How human behaviour is destroying our planet through climate change and species extinction.
- How peoples are being driven apart through nationalism and isolationism.
- How the “bubble-fication” of our lives prevents community, since we stay within our chosen group of people that look, think and act like us.
I suggest that in such a world, it is perhaps easier than it used to be to be caught being Christian in public. So how to go about it? In the PMC process we have six mission practices, two of which are particularly relevant. The first is Dwelling in the World, where a local church identifies a public “Kingdom”-type issue that God is calling and sending the church to address, such as poverty or loneliness.
As part of this practice, church members are encouraged and equipped to form relationships with concerned people outside the church (we call them “people of peace”). We show them how to set up and have one-to-one meetings with these people of peace. When enough of these people outside the church have been identified, a bridge-community can form which acts together on this public issue.
When something good happens in that action, which looks like the activity of the God who is always at work, it is pointed out by church members, so that everyone else has the chance to notice God at work. For example, a Christian might simply look at some progress made and say something like, “Looks like God to me.” We call this second practice Announcing the Kingdom. This is one simple way in which the body of Christ and her individual members can overcome the public/private split, take up an authentic role in society and be caught being Christian.
You can read more about these practices in the booklets Missional Church and Forming the Missional Church published by Grove.