By Simon Hall
There is an apocryphal story about Saint Peter that continues to resonate down the ages. Peter is escaping the persecution of Christians in Rome when he meets the risen Jesus on the road. Jesus is heading into Rome as Peter is running away. ‘Where are you going?’ Peter asks Jesus (Quo vadis? in Latin). ‘I am going to Rome to be crucified again,’ Jesus replies. Peter is challenged to follow Jesus back into the city, where he serves the Church and is ultimately martyred.
I am not one of those Christians who believes that because Christianity is losing its position of power and privilege that means that we are being persecuted. However, there is no doubt that the Church in the UK in general, and Leeds in particular, is going through a time of struggle and doubt, and it is worth asking Jesus where in Leeds he is going, and whether we are willing to follow him, whatever the cost.
Our current context is one of massive, and for some denominations terminal, decline. Looking at the evidence will be unnecessary for many of us, but if you need to be convinced that this is a historic cultural change then some of the latest statistics can be found here:
Leeds has not missed out on this national trend, but due to some demographic peculiarities (the relative lateness of its rapid growth into cityhood; the massive displacement of communities in the first half of the 20th century) it would appear that its effects are exaggerated and accelerated in comparison to other mid-sized cities in the UK. The established congregations in Leeds are becoming smaller, and older, and apart from those being replenished by new arrivals to the city, the future looks unsustainable.
What will the Church in Leeds look like in thirty years’ time? A best guess is that most churches will be of two kinds: firstly, highly stylised churches that gather people from a wide radius on the basis of personal preference. We already have a number of evangelical and charismatic churches that have a ‘translocal’ ministry, which might be considered to be the prime examples of this. But it is no use blaming a particular spirituality (charismatic) or a particular generation (the young). Across the UK, cathedrals are reporting an increase in attendance, which is in a large part down to the fact that many local churches can no longer offer the music and splendour of a cathedral-like service.
We are all consumers now. I recently spoke to a Methodist Minister who told me that all but three of his congregation passed another Methodist Church on the way to their congregation of choice every Sunday morning. It’s not clear what will happen to the churches planted by recent immigrants to Leeds, but if the experience of the African-Caribbean churches of the city are a guide, it is likely that they will serve an ethnic diaspora, gathering some of the descendants of the founders who now live far and wide.
The second form of church will be very different: small and unstable, largely unseen and statistically insignificant, tiny house churches will emerge from streets, playgroups, community choirs, youth clubs, groups of friends etc. If you want to be part of a local expression of church on your housing estate or among your alternative youth culture you will probably have to start it yourself. Such groups will have no money, no building, no hierarchy, probably no institutional affiliation, and very little chance of surviving very long. They will serve a particular group, then probably die. But some won’t. A few will find a way of multiplying who they are and help others to set up similarly low maintenance groups. But it won’t look much like church as we know it now.
Not that I believe that ‘The Church’ is going to die, even if individual congregations and denominations pass away. What concerns me is that like the mythical Peter, we may be tempted to walk away from our city precisely at the time Jesus is calling us into it. While my depiction of our future might seem unremittingly bleak, I am not without hope. Of course, we cannot be complacent because we have no God-given right to persist: all seven of the churches mentioned in the book of Revelation have passed away. Nonetheless, I believe that if we can accept this future and engage with it creatively then the body of Christ may yet reach every neighbourhood of Leeds.
I am a Baptist Minister. For half my week I serve in a local church in north Leeds, one which might not be around in thirty years unless we start thinking creatively now. For the other half of my week I am part of a tiny network of small groups that I’m hoping will be a seed of the future, but might not last to the end of the decade. Every week I feel the desire to preserve what we have and the need to create something new that none of us can see.
This is how I see our future: imagine the time of the dinosaurs, when those great reptiles reigned supreme. At that moment, if you were a betting person, you would put your money on the dinosaurs ruling the earth for a very long time, and so they did. They became bigger and bigger, until, due to a massive catastrophe, they declined and were replaced by the mammals, tiny creatures who had spent several million years just trying to avoid being eaten.
A betting person right now should bet on the large churches being the future, together catering for many different theologies, spiritualities and ethnicities. Many of them are here now. However, something inside me tells me that the changes in our society are as great as the conflagration that wiped out the dinosaurs. The future may actually belong to the tiny groups that spring up across the city, the insignificant and vulnerable mammals. Of course, most of them will die out. But it is likely that these groups will be much more diverse and experimental in reaching the ‘post-Christian’ generations. The American author Brian Maclaren has put it this way: ‘Just as the cathedrals were the last gasp of the medieval age, built with the tools of modernity, so megachurches are the last gasp of modernity, built with the tools of postmodernity.’ Of course, an aphorism is not a proof, but it’s worth thinking about nonetheless. My personal hope is that the large and the small can find a way to value and support each other – we need both. But since the large has its own ways of sustaining itself, I’m going to invest in the small.
I hope you are thinking about the future of Leeds now. Very soon, most of us will be travelling from our home neighbourhood to another part of the city for worship. If, one Sunday morning, we met Jesus going the other way, how would the conversation go?