There are many signs that the Spirit is still active in British society, despite the decline of Christendom. If mission is the church discovering what the Holy Spirit is doing and joining in, then there is lots for the church to join in with.
Interest in spirituality is widespread
Something extraordinary seems to be happening to the spiritual life of Britain,
claimed researchers David Hay and Kay Hunt at the turn of the millennium.
In 2000, the BBC's Soul of Britain survey found that over 76% of the population admitted to having had a spiritual experience, such as answered prayer or a strong sense of God's presence.
This was up by 59% in just over 10 years, and by more than 110% in 25 (David Hay and Kay Hunt, Is Britain's soul waking up? in The Tablet, 27 June, 2000).
On the other hand, research in 2006 suggested that interest in spirituality may be less widespread in the 15 to 25 age group in Britain. These young people seemed to have a more 'material' existence, with happiness their main goal in life (Sara Savage, Sylvia Collins-Mayo, Bob Mayo with Graham Cray, Making sense of Generation Y. The world view of 15- 25-year-olds, CHP, 2006).
Yet youth workers and others report that if you scratch the surface, most youngsters still want to be loved, to feel their life is worthwhile and to be part of something bigger than themselves. Though not expressed in spiritual terms, these longings speak of a God-shaped gap in their lives.
People remain interested in church
Sociologist Steve Bruce, among others, has produced a mass of statistics to show how the church is in terminal decline, with society becoming increasingly secularised (Steve Bruce, God is dead. Secularisation in the West, Blackwell, 2002).
However in 2003, an extraordinary 43% of all babies were baptised (figure provided by Dr Peter Brierley in December 2005). They were brought mainly by 25 to 35 year-old parents, a group that is noticeably absent from church Sunday by Sunday.
In 2005, 41% of respondents in a national survey said they had attended church the previous year for a baptism, compared to 28% in 2001. 43% had been at Christmas, 10% more than four years earlier. 21% had been to church the previous year 'to seek a quiet space', up from 12% (Church of England, ORB 2001 & 2005 surveys).
Fewer people go to church, but large numbers still have some interest.
People often respond to new expressions of church
For instance, eight Church of England churches in Kensington, London, planted a new congregation and saw their attendance rise by 26% from 2002 to 2004.
A group of six Church of England churches in Lichfield each planted a new congregation in 2002-3. By November 2003, their collective attendance had grown by 14%. These new congregations included different, as well as more traditional expressions of church (Bob Jackson, The Road to Growth, CHP, 2005, pp59-60).
There seems to be a reaching out for spiritual connection that is not being met by many churches today, and a considerable degree of openness to church.
Fresh expressions respond to this. Many take seriously people's spiritual experiences and longings, provide opportunities to express this spirituality and prayerfully encourage a journey into God's love.
B1, A network church meeting in bars and cafés in central Birmingham began by reaching out to young adults.
Now people of all ages attend a worship gathering, a spirituality course and other seeker events, or visit the city-centre 'Breathe' sanctuary space for spiritual reflection as the church offers to accompany people on their faith journey whatever stage they are at.
- Story: B1
Tolland parish church, a remote rural church in a Somerset benefice was under threat of closure. Taking the opportunity to do or die, it altered its pattern of services from monthly matins to seven festivals a year. The new focus on seasonal celebrations revealed a desire to connect with church.
Now over half the village population attend services regularly and the church is once again at the heart of the community.
- Story: Tolland