Relatability isn’t the key; it’s the Word

Some folks have been getting a bit annoyed with St Michael’s Church in Bournemouth going through a rebrand and calling itself St Mike’s. I find it difficult to believe – like every other Anglican Church name I have ever heard – that people didn’t already informally refer to it like that anyway. Most people don’t go to the trouble of referring, in full, to St John’s in the field, down the road, by the pond or wherever. Even our own church name gets shortened just to ‘Bethel’ rather than the full kit and caboodle. In fact, every church I’ve ever been in had a shorthand that everyone knew it by. It’s just the way most people shorten most things when everyone knows what they’re talking about.

I suspect the upset has more to do with the fact that it is an official, rather than informal, thing. And lying behind that is a suspicion. A suspicion stated outright by the Daily Mail as, ‘A bid to become more trendy’. Indeed, the vicar Sarah Yetman said, ‘We aren’t trying to alienate anyone by changing the name, but I do feel that if we don’t take steps now to draw people in from those younger generations we will be lamenting what we have missed in the years to come.’

Giles Fraser considers the whole thing to be part of a wider trend. He states:

[This] is just the latest in a broad transformation whereby formality of worship is being dropped because it is seen as a barrier to new younger worshippers. The big idea is that we should all get more chummy with the divine.

Interestingly, Rod Liddle saw something similar behind the move. He noted in The Times:

A church in Bournemouth called St Michael’s has changed its name to St Mike’s. The vicar, Sarah Yetman, said this is to make the church “attractive and engaging for younger generations”.

Both, interestingly, also recognise the flaw in the plan. As Liddle put it:

I’m sure that will do the trick, Sarah. Especially if you refer to our Lord as Jezza C and His Badass Crew. Sarah says there will also be a coffee bar. Ooh! Will there be ping-pong too? I bet the kids will swarm in.

Fraser, similarly, says:

Trendy vicars are the new trendy teachers trying to relate to the kids with permanent (draining to watch) smiles, over the top, unrelenting enthusiasm, and awkward references to popular culture. Yes, I get it. I too want my children’s teachers to look more like Hector from the History Boys (without the fondling) than the Nineties era Tony Blair leaning casually against the photocopier in his stonewashed jeans. And the comparison is not just with trendy vicars. Our new Bishops want to be known as Ric or Pete or Rod. Names are all about relatability. And Christianity is about our relatability to God.

What is interesting, however, is their distinctly different approaches to the problem of decline. For Fraser, the answer lies here:

I am not convinced that the whole Jesus-is-my-best-friend approach best carries all that young people want from the Almighty. There is nothing like spending an hour or so on your knees, somewhere vast and empty, to put your life into some kind of larger perspective and make you feel suitably humble in the great scheme of things. There is nothing quite like the order and majesty of catholic worship to summon a sense of holiness. This is the place where you can come with all your baggage, failures, stupidities, and hold them up to the altar without the distracting need for chat or explanations. This is the place where the sinner hears the convincing reply of silence.

He goes on later:

[T]he new St Mike’s scares me for the future of the church. As numbers collapse, it is the small pools of musty holy silence that are being cut out first, ordinary churchgoers being sidelined, as central church finance is being pumped into smiley relatable imaginary church. People can find relatable anywhere these days, in every walk of life. Our culture is sick with the sugary taste of emoting professionals. Because, like diabetes, it eats us away from within.

Compare this to the straightforward view of the irreligious columnist:

Not all churches are seeing attendances plummeting, by the way. Lots of evangelical churches are doing just fine — by basing their teachings on that clapped-out, boring old book the Bible.

Like both Liddle and Fraser, I agree that a lunge at trendiness will not reverse the decline. I have written about this here and, as I said in that post, it has never been skewered as well as by King of the Hill:

I was talking with another friend recently and we both acknowledged there is no such thing as a cool Christian. The sooner we learn it is so, the better.

The question is: does the solution lie in traditional forms or in traditional doctrine. Whilst Fraser is absolutely right that we cannot drive a wedge between the God of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament, his own departure from traditional doctrine, having been nominated as Stonewall Hero of the Year in 2012 and continuing to agitate for changes to the traditional teaching of the church. For Fraser, retaining biblical orthodoxy doesn’t seem to be a priority and it is hard to see how departing from it, maintaining empty traditions and rituals, and parroting back to the culture its own shibboleths is any less an empty search for relevance than the rebrand of St Mike’s and cringeworthy evangelicoolism.

Rod Liddle is right when he notes that the churches stemming decline, indeed those that are growing, tend to be both orthodox and – no doubt to Fraser’s chagrin – evangelical. For want of a better way of putting it, they insist on teaching the Bible and doing what it says.

The reason for that should be simple enough. Just as Fraser rightly notes that ‘people can find relatable anywhere these days‘, so too they don’t need the church to hear what the culture continually affirms around them. The only unique thing the church has is Christ, his Word, its doctrine and their particular worldview that stems from these things. There’s not much else that you can’t find anywhere else. Big buildings that are old and make you feel quite small are ten a penny – come to Oldham and I’ll stick you in an abandoned mill if you don’t believe me! We can go into nature and feel a sense of the grandness of the universe and the smallness of ourselves. We can find lots of places that allow us to reflect in silence. Even certain traditions can be found elsewhere. But a belief in the Bible and all that it says, to the point that it actually affects one’s life, that is the unique preserve of the church. Those that continue to grow are those that recognise this and have continued to ensure the Word is central and the trappings are moot.

In many ways, that is why many more ‘relatable’ evangelical churches are also growing. The relatability, of itself, isn’t the vital element. It is their insistence on the Word. It is a focus on the Bible, that believes and teaches that it should change us and then calls people to change in line with what it says. Those places are not in decline because they too realise that there is nothing other than Christ and his Word that they really have to offer. And it seems, if people at large get anything about the church, it is that.