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Culture, Life, Uncategorized

Allegories, Fantasies and… Passenger to Frankfurt?

At the end of January I finished a couple of books I’ve had on the go for ages – Hind’s Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard, and a collection of stories by the Victorian author George MacDonald entitled Evenor. Both books contain allegories: Hind’s Feet is a Christian allegory from first to last, and of the three stories in Evenor the last – The Golden Key – is also an allegory. I’ve read quite a few allegories by now, and so I thought I’d make them the subject of a post.


The start of the adventure

Allegories are stories that an author intends to be readable in two ways: the action in an allegory makes sense by itself, so an allegory can be read as “just a story”. At the same time, the events and characters stand in for real-world events or concepts, and if you know what these events and concepts are the allegory can be read with a second meaning. So, to use perhaps the best known example, C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is an excellent children’s fantasy adventure. And, at the same time, C.S. Lewis wrote it so that if you identify Aslan the lion with Jesus (and so on) it tells a Christian story involving themes of atonement, forgiveness and redemption.

When starting this post I drew up a list of allegories I’ve read and was surprised by the number. It wasn’t always easy to decide which books to include – is it an allegory, or not? Here are the “definites”:

  • The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) – John Bunyan
  • The Golden Key (1867) – George MacDonald (in Evenor)
  • The Space Trilogy (1938-1945) – C.S. Lewis (3 books* in total, a.k.a. The Cosmic Trilogy)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956) – C. S. Lewis (7 books in total)
  • Hind’s Feet on High Places (1955) – Hannah Hurnard
  • Starforce Red Alert (1983) – Chris Spencer (a children’s sci-fi allegory)

(*The first two books – Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and Perelandra aka. Voyage to Venus (1943) – use allegory, while the third – That Hideous Strength (1945) – does not.)

With one exception, the allegorical nature of all of these books is explicitly Christian. The degree to which the dual nature of the stories is maintained varies a lot from book to book. In The Pilgrim’s Progress and Hind’s Feet the spiritual message is dominant and made obvious to the reader (for example, The Pilgrim’s Progress follows “Christian” who meets “Evangelist” and leaves the “City of Destruction” for the “Celestial City”.) Both of these books are about setting out on a journey, and these journeys are a metaphor for becoming and/or maturing as a Christian. In contrast, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the balance between the two types of story is about even: it can be read without realising there is a Christian message, but the spiritual message is not difficult to interpret once you know it is there.

The exception in the above list is The Golden Key, which I think is harder to pin down. While the second meaning is broadly in sympathy with a Christian perspective, I don’t think there is anything that forces it to be read this way. The Golden Key follows the adventures of a boy who finds a golden key at the end of a rainbow and leaves home in an effort to find the lock which the key opens. [Strong spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph!] The journey is again a metaphor for journeying through life and becoming older and wiser. Interestingly, the boy and his girl travelling companion age and die before the end of the story – but “death” is not something they notice. They undergo a change: their new form is continuous with their old form, but better, and it has to be explained to them that they have actually died.

The Golden Key is beautifully written, and becomes more beautiful as it gets towards the end. It is very short (only about 30 pages), and I was on an allegory-reading high after finishing Hind’s Feet the same afternoon. I would recommend it, and in fact it can be found in full online here on the Project Gutenberg Australia website.


Getting sidetracked on a little literary branchline

The copy of Evenor next to me came from a second-hand sale thirty years ago. I can’t remember hearing of the author, George MacDonald, elsewhere. However, the introduction to the book explains that he was one of the most celebrated writers of the mid-nineteenth century:

At the height of his career, say around 1865, MacDonald was one of the most celebrated writers of his age, and he knew everyone in the literary world. There exists a … photograph (undated, but taken sometime before 1859) which shows a roomful of bearded gentlemen. Their names are rather famous – Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Carlyle, Macaulay, Bulwer-Lytton, and George Macdonald.

Lin Carter, “The Dubious Land” in Evenor, pp.x-xi

The introduction goes on to explain that MacDonald’s writing was a huge influence on C.S. Lewis:

I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it.

C.S. Lewis writing about George MacDonald. “The Dubious Land” in Evenor, pp.xiii

The style of fantasy in MacDonald’s stories in Evenor is different to the kind of fantasy that is popular in films such as The Lord of the Rings or TV series like Game of Thrones. It isn’t about knights and wizards, or battles between medieval-esque kingdoms. It is much more local and connected to folk beliefs. For example, The Carasoyn is a story about fairies, and powerful “wise woman” characters are a common thread linking the tales. The origin of these characters is never explained, and their power is never challenged. The focus of the stories is on the life and development of the protagonist, and the wise women and other powerful characters are a fixed part of the world with which the protagonist learns to interact.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis in Oxford. I don’t know for certain that he was also a fan of MacDonald’s work, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The style of parts of the first half of The Lord of the Rings is reminiscent of MacDonald’s work. Specifically, the parts of The Lord of the Rings that got cut when making the recent films!

[Spoiler warnings for this paragraph!] I am thinking here primarily of Tom Bombadil: he is a mysterious, never-fully-explained character that Frodo and his companions meet near the start of their journey, and who helps them out a time or two. Tom Bombadil often talks and sings in nature-centred verse. He is effectively immortal, and impervious to harm from the central antagonist. He tries on the “One Ring” and… it does nothing to him. At all. He just laughs and takes it off again. He is like MacDonald’s wise women, and is a point of connection between MacDonald’s style of fantasy and the kind of fantasy that is dominant today. When Frodo and his friends leave Tom Bombadil behind it feels, to me, as if one style is waving goodbye to the other.


Getting back on course – Tolkien and allegories

C.S. Lewis and Tolkien knew one another well. However, while C.S. Lewis used both fantasy and science fiction to write allegories, Tolkien did something different. The following quotations are from a letter Tolkien wrote in 1951 to a friend and an editor at Harper-Collins named Milton Waldman (the letter is reprinted at the start of The Silmarillion):

But an equally basic passion of mine ab initio [= from the beginning] was for myth (not allegory!) and for fairy-story, and above all for heroic legend on the brink of fairy-tale and history, of which there is far too little in the world (accessible to me) for my appetite.”

Also… I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil)… Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing. For one thing… For another and more important thing: it is involved in, and explicitly contains the Christian religion.

For reasons which I will not elaborate, that seems to me fatal. Myth and fairy-story must, as all art, reflect and contain in solution elements of moral and religious truth (or error), but not explicit, not in the known form of the primary ‘real’ world.”

I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And, of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.)

As the quotations above show, Tolkien didn’t set out to write allegories. His two best-known books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, are stories through and through. Nonetheless, Tolkien, a devout Catholic, still regarded The Lord of the Rings as in a sense a heavily religious work. I’m not sure, but my best guess is that the idea he was getting at might be something like the following: in a work on which an author spends a lot of time and care their personal reflections on life and faith show through, and one doesn’t have to make explicit parallels between real life and events in the book to have something valuable to say about life and faith. There is something intrinsically valuable about a story that contains this kind of reflection. In a deliberate allegory, to use a metaphor, “the spell is broken”. The intrinsic value of the story is to some extent compromised: to the extent that the author talks to the reader directly, the story becomes second fiddle – it is a dressing for the true communication, the “sermon”. The value inherent in the reflective story itself becomes lost.

As I say, that’s my guess at what Tolkien was saying. However, I’m not a Tolkien expert, so I might well be wrong. (If you know more about Tolkien and his writing, I would love it if you left a comment below!) Personally I think there is space for both Lewis and Tolkien. I like allegories as I like their narrative approach to learning from the life experiences of the author; in other words, I like the dual meanings, but I’m reading for the spiritual one. And I love Tolkien’s stories of Middle Earth.

Although Tolkien avoided allegory, there is still an interesting comparison to be made between his book The Silmarillion and the Bible. Tolkien originally intended for The Silmarillion to be published alongside The Lord of the Rings as a companion volume. In the end this did not happen. The Silmarillion was only published posthumously in 1977, after his son Christopher Tolkien took his father’s stories and synthesised them into a complete narrative (it’s a great book – though the language and structure make it much harder going than The Lord of the Rings.)

The Silmarillion tells the story of the events before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings take place. It starts with Eru (God, in the Middle Earth universe), who creates spiritual beings, who go on to take part in shaping the world according to Eru’s design. The foremost of the spiritual beings rebels, and goes on to mar the world and become an evil, deceiving influence…

If you are familiar with the Bible, several parallels stand out while reading The Silmarillion. There are parallels with major early events in the Bible. And, more interestingly, there are parallels between the structure and style of the book as whole and the structure and style of the Old Testament. To give one example, and speaking very roughly, both move from God creating the world at the start; through stories which involve direct interactions between men* and spiritual figures; to stories where interactions are between men, and the actions of spiritual beings are often only seen indirectly in the outcomes of men’s actions, and the outcomes of world events.

(*Or in the case of The Silmarillion elves… )

That’s a VERY broad-brushstrokes description! The point is, the structure and style of The Silmarillion to some extent mirrors that of the Bible. It is interesting that in devising a new myth Tolkien still stuck in some ways so closely to the Biblical text. (If you are interested to find out a bit more about this, Tolkien goes on to discuss this later in the letter previously quoted from.)


Finally, we reach Germany!

The title of this blog post is “Allegories, Fantasies and… Passenger to Frankfurt?” Those of you who know your Agatha Christie might have spotted the odd one out! I had better make my case for mentioning it…

Agatha Christie is best known as an author of murder mystery novels, and for two of her detectives: Poirot and Miss Marple. However, she also wrote other books, including a number of thrillers. She was at her peak as an author in the 1930s, but continued to write on into the 1970s. Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) is one of her later books. It is regarded as one of her weaker novels, though it still gets 2.9/5 stars on Goodreads.

The book starts off promisingly: Sir Stafford Nye is waiting for a connecting flight at the airport in Frankfurt. When a woman comes up to him and says that she will be killed unless she can travel on the next plane, he switches place with her, and a train of events is set in motion. However, the rest of the book doesn’t live up to the early promise. [Spoiler warning for the rest of this section!] It is a thriller in which there are in a sense… no thrills. There is lots of talking about what is going to happen. Then the protagonist goes somewhere else, where they talk about what is going to happen. Then they travel to another place and talk about… guess what? Yep! There is almost no action!

So why am I mentioning this book in this post? As I read through the book, it seemed to me that Christie’s writing style here has more in common with an allegory than with a typical thriller. The theme of the book is the fear that something is rotten in Europe. It is hard to pin down what exactly, or who is responsible, but there is a growing fear for the future and of another (a third, in Christie’s context) war. This point is made again… and again… and again… . It felt as if Christie is talking through the pages of the book about her reflections on this subject, with the story somewhat in the background as the vehicle.

Without knowing more about Christie, or politics in 1970, I don’t know the extent to which the book actually portrays Christie’s views or those of people at the time. Passenger to Frankfurt isn’t an allegory, but to me the reading experience felt like it, and I found this interesting as it was an unexpected place to find myself thinking about “allegory as a genre”.


Some recommendations

In one long post I’ve talked about a good number of my favourite books in one go. I hope that you might have come across something along the way which you are tempted to read. If you would like a recommendation of an allegory with which to start – I think The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is the most available and accessible, and from there others of the Narnia books are great (I have had a soft spot since childhood for the character of Reepicheep the mouse, particularly in Voyage of the Dawntreader.) The Golden Key is short, and definitely something a bit different. For those after something in a Christian direction, Hind’s Feet on High Places is very good for its theme of spiritual development and maturity and I think it’s easier to read than The Pilgrim’s Progress. (The Pilgrim’s Progress can be found for free here on the U.S. Project Gutenberg website).


Catch you in the next post!

Church culture, Culture, Dating, Digital, Life, Uncategorized

On-line dating: some observations from my experience with it

Some time ago, when I first started my blog, I mentioned that I was going to try on-line dating to try and meet a special someone. It’s now over a year and a half later. Did I give it a go, and how did it turn out?

The short answers are “yes” – and that I have been very fortunate, meeting a lovely person.


In this post I would like to talk about a few of the things I noticed while using on-line dating. I’m not an expert on the subject by any means: I only used one dating website, and was lucky enough to meet my special person within a fairly short time. Also, my experience was overwhelmingly positive. Many people who try on-line dating have mixed, negative (or even very-negative) experiences. However, with those caveats in mind, I think it is a subject worth me writing about. In the course of trying it I came across things I had not thought about before. Given that on-line dating is not something that most Christians I know (and many other people too!) have direct experience of, I think what I’ve learned may be of interest and worth passing on.


Dating sites exist on a spectrum

“On-line dating” is a bit of a catch-all term. There are a lot of dating websites / Apps, but they share a common idea. First, register with the site/App. Second, “meet” other people online. Third, having found someone you get on with, meet them in person “in the real world”. However, there is a whole spectrum of variety in how the “meeting other people online” bit is done.

  • At one end of the spectrum are sites/Apps where initially all you see are photos of other people and make snap like/dislike decisions based on what you see. If you both “like” each other, you can then start to communicate.
  • At the other end of the spectrum are sites/Apps where you fill in a detailed profile and the computer suggests possible matches for you who seem compatible based on the data you enter.

An example of a well-known dating tool towards the first end of the spectrum would be Tinder, and sites like Match.com and eHarmony are more towards the other end. The site I chose to use was Christian Connection, which lies somewhere in the middle. You fill in a profile, which can be as detailed or sparse as you want (and which you can edit whenever you wish) and submit pictures. You can then view other people’s profiles and pictures. However, beyond setting some simple filters like target sex and age range, the computer doesn’t do any matching for you.

As the name suggests, the site I chose was one that caters specifically for a Christian audience. It isn’t the only Christian dating site / App, and sites for other specific groups also exist – though I don’t know much about them.


Supermarkets are weird. Good, but weird.

I decided to give on-line dating a go because meeting anyone any other way looked unlikely. There are two factors that feed into this. First, in a lot of UK churches, the number of single Christians in my age bracket (I’m mid-30s) is small – maybe only 2 or 3 people in total – so the local “dating pool” is tiny to start with. Second, I found that whenever I did meet new people, it was never for long enough to actually get to know them.

Coming from this background (a decade out of university, total dates a head-spinning zero), joining up to the dating site and starting to look at other people’s profiles was weird. Good, but weird.

It felt weird because it dawned on me that I was browsing like in a shop… but for someone I might spend the rest of my life with.

However, I quickly realised that there is a lot of sense to online dating. On a dating site, you know that everyone there is there because they want to meet someone. So, you know in advance that saying hello and starting a conversation is (absolutely terrifying but) ok. In the offline “real” world, unless you know someone really well, you never know how asking them out is going to be received. It takes a lot of the awkwardness out of it.


The safety bit and the Wild West bit

One concern with on-line dating is safety: if you go to meet someone you met over the internet, what do you actually know about them? Are they who they say they are, and is what they say about themselves true? There are risks, and they do need to be taken seriously. I’m not an expert on on-line dating, so I won’t offer safety advice. But there is plenty of advice out there. For example, here is a safety page from the dating site I used: Date Safe with Christian Connection.

I’ve called this part of the post “the safety bit and the Wild West bit” because, although the “meeting in person” risks in the previous paragraph are the most obvious concerns, my experience of the “meeting online” part of on-line dating is that it is rather like the Wild West. You see people’s profiles. They see yours. Communication happens. But there are very few rules.

Like a city-slicker in a Western heading out for the first time, when I finished my profile and got off the stagecoach in Dodge, it wasn’t long before I realised that this was a social environment with dynamics of its own that I was not prepared for. And other people on the site would be in the same boat. Put lots of people from different backgrounds in an unfamiliar, emotionally-charged social environment and, even if everyone if everyone starts off with the best of intentions, communication mistakes are likely to happen and there is the risk of getting hurt emotionally.

That is a bit abstract, so to be more concrete:

  • You see a profile that appeals to you, and eventually summon up the courage to send the person a friendly introductory greeting. Fantastic! And now you wait for a reply.
  • But… how long do you wait? You don’t know if the other person is sat at the keyboard hoping for a message from someone just like you at that very moment. Or will check their account tomorrow. Or are on holiday for a week. Or, even if they have seen your message, that they will ever reply!
  • You don’t hear back after a couple of days… So, after what is essentially an arbitrary length of time, you decide to send someone else a message. Are you now communicating with one person, or two?
  • Meanwhile, other people can see your profile. You find that a couple of people have sent you messages. How nice! One of them does not appear at all suitable. But, keeping an open mind, the other person sounds like someone you would be happy to talk to. How many people are you now talking to?
  • At what point do you switch from communicating with lots of people, to just one person with whom you think you have a chance of forming a successful relationship? How do you end conversations with everyone else gracefully?

In the off-line world, talking to more than one woman at a time to gauge whether they like you, and whether a romantic relationship between you could work, would be… odd. However, given the structure of the dating site it was essentially inevitable. I found this really confusing. What were the social rules of this space?

I searched the help forum for advice, as I wanted to communicate well and not hurt people accidentally. There was a mixture of sensible general advice, and other users offering views on what was good conduct. This was helpful and gave me some guidelines, but really that is what they were, only guidelines. My overall impression was that this part of the on-line dating process is rather lacking in social conventions. I can’t help but wonder whether a lot of negative experiences with on-line dating (whether on the site I used or elsewhere) have this issue somewhere at their root.


Covering the miles

Another thing I found was that on-line dating involves the need to travel.

Using on-line dating massively widens the local dating pool. However, even on-line, the Christian dating pool in a large town like the one I live in is still quite small. Compare that to a big city like London, which is an hour or so away: for every person in the local dating pool, there are a hundred in London. I came to the conclusion that to meet someone on-line that I really clicked with, I would likely need to travel, at least as far as London.

As it happens, the person I met lives a *little* further away than that…

Thinking about it, of the Christian couples I know that met on-line, the majority lived at least a few hours journey apart before they met. I don’t know if this is generally true, or just reflects the people I happen to know. It would be interesting to see some statistics on this subject. If you happen to know of some, please do leave a comment below.


Final Thoughts

I had better stop writing this post at some point. I keep thinking of extra things to say! One question is whether on-line dating is something I’d recommend, and I’ll close with a few thoughts on that.

For me, I have had an overwhelmingly positive experience. However, in this I have been very fortunate and a lot of other people will have so-so (even if ultimately successful) experiences or negative ones. In this post I’ve tried to adopt a balanced tone, talking about both the advantages and possible downsides I’ve come across in as neutral a way as possible.

For me, thinking in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, the benefits of going on-line – meeting someone special – outweighed the risks. One thing that I think often isn’t appreciated, particularly by people in older generations, is that the risks aren’t entirely on the meeting-online side. For me, meeting a Christian partner any other way was unlikely. On the one hand, yes, there are the risks associated with the internet; but on the other hand is the risk of not meeting a partner and missing out on that side of life. This isn’t to say that on-line dating is or isn’t a good idea. It will be for some people, but not others, depending on their circumstances. But I think it is a helpful way to look at it.

Church culture, Culture, Life, Uncategorized

Language, Church Sub-culture and the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles

Some words have an expiry date. Culture moves on, old meanings get lost or new meanings get added, and what was once a good word to use no longer fits the bill. Over the last couple of years I’ve become aware of a couple of words that are still “in” in Christian sub-culture (at least in the UK) which I’d like to suggest could be due for the chop.

I’ll get there, but first –

Heroes in a Half-Shell, Turtle Power!

It’s around 1990. A young schoolboy is going about his day, not knowing what momentous event is coming his way. Little does he know he is about to encounter four amphibian superheroes: Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Raphael – otherwise known as The Teenage Mutant Hero (Ninja in the US) Turtles.

I liked the Turtles*. For a while they really had a moment. Believe it or not, my first calculator was a Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles one. It came attached to the front of a book that was on sale at the newsagents, and…

Oh dear, I’m reminiscing. We could be here a while if I go too far down that route.

The reason for bringing the Turtles up is their vocabulary. Although they lived in the sewers of New York, they had a vocabulary of 1980s surfer slang. “Bogus!” … “Cowabunga!” … “Tubuloso!”

And one other word, courtesy of Michaelangelo –

“Awesomely radical, dude!”

*Little me actually preferred the adventures of Bucky O’Hare, space rabbit, and his on-going mission to thwart the menace of the evil Toad Empire. But, given that the Turtle franchise has had a series of resurgences over the last 25-30 years, and Bucky has faded into obscurity, it seems likely this valuation was not one universally shared.

Time Passes

Growing up I was well aware that what the TMNT had to say was slang. No adult I knew followed the Turtles in using “Radical!” to describe something really good that happened. Unless in a (well-meaning but rather desperate) attempt to be hip, cool, and otherwise relevant to the youth of today. But “Radical!” didn’t seem to have a negative connotation either; it just wasn’t a word anyone would use in serious conversation.

It was in some ways a more innocent time. The Turtles could use make of radical’s meaning of “extreme” as a shorthand for “extremely good” without causing concern. Unfortunately, a lot has happened since then. On September 11th, 2001, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were attacked. This was followed by the War on Terror, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then the struggle against IS.

The dangers of Islamic Fundamentalism have been in the news throughout this time, with good reason. A big part of the discussion has been the danger of “Radicalisation” of young people. In the UK the government has been proactive and implemented the Prevent Strategy in an attempt to stop young people being drawn into dangerous fundamentalism and terrorism in the first place, and as part of this schools are now required to actively think about how to prevent radicalisation among the people in their care.

So, sadly, the word “Radical!” has lost its innocence. Where “radical” appears in the same sentence as “religion” in the newspaper now, the word carries a strong negative overtone.

The Sub-cultural Bubble

Over the last few years, I’ve listened to a fair number of talks from Christian festivals, podcasts, sermons (from a number of different churches), as well as reading a sizeable number of articles and Christian books. One thing that has stood out to me is the surprising number of times I’ve heard a speaker use the word “radical” for some reason. They haven’t meant any harm by it, and certainly haven’t used it to advocate anything which tends towards violence. It’s a word with multiple meanings, and they’ve used it for its meanings of “thorough” or “far-reaching” rather than for its meaning of “extreme”. In other words, they are using the word innocently. However, the connotations associated with the word have changed; it is now something that puts people on edge, and is open to mis-interpretation.

[A few weeks ago, I watched a talk where a minister needed to make a reference to the word “radical”. I can’t remember why; it is possible it was in a quotation they were using. Anyhow, they were aware of the problem and carefully explained how in the context it was being used nothing sinister or dangerous was implied. They did a good job. However, the necessity to give explanations and caveats does show how problematic the word has become.]

So I think it is time this word was retired. It isn’t needed, and it really isn’t going to help the Christian community in its relations with the wider community.

Likewise, I think the tendency in parts of the Christian community to refer to small groups as “cell” groups isn’t really a helpful one. The meaning is well-intended: just as healthy cells in the body grow and reproduce, a cell group in a church is envisioned as a healthy group where people get on well with each other, the group grows as new people become interested, and in time the group splits into two groups that each do the same. This use of the word “cell” is meant to be life-affirming. However, unfortunately, when the topics of “religion” and “cell” go together in the newspaper, the meaning is often not a happy one. Nowadays it connects to the idea of a “terrorist cell”, and so the meaning conveyed is life-denying rather than life-affirming. (Not to mention the other common meaning of “cell” – a jail cell! … that really isn’t a good one to connect to either!)

The Wrap-up

So there are a few thoughts about words that I think might be past their prime, and ready to be put out to grass. Are there any others that need to be let go?

Church culture, Culture, Life, Uncategorized

A Book Review of “The Invisible Church”, by Steve Aisthorpe

Some time ago I came across a book from 2016 that piqued my interest – The Invisible Church by Dr. Steve Aisthorpe.

After twelve years out in the Far East, he returned to the village in the Highlands of Scotland where his Christian faith had first developed – and found to his surprise that a lot of people that he knew had stopped attending church. Had they lost their faith? No; when he met them in person, he found that “their Christian faith continued to be the mainspring of their lives.” This was a puzzling situation, and set him on a path that led to conducting three studies on “churchless” or “non-congregational” Christians in Scotland.

The results of these studies form the basis for The Invisible Church. It’s an interesting book because, as the author explains towards the start, few previous studies have actually reached out to people who stopped joining in with the activities of their local churches and asked them why they made this choice, or what their beliefs and practices look like afterwards.


How Were the Studies Carried Out?

If you’re interested in the details, fairly short summaries of Dr. Aisthorpe’s studies are available for free on this Church of Scotland webpage: Resourcing Mission – Mission Research. Here is the briefest of outlines:

  • “Faith Beyond the Congregations”, 2013 – Contact was made with churchless Christians using methods like newspaper articles and social media. Of those who responded, 30 were selected for interview, with this 30 comprising an even male-female split and a variety of experiences of church. The aim of this study was preliminary, with the objective being to identify the right questions to ask in subsequent studies.
  • “Investigating the Invisible Church”, 2014 – Using a random survey technique to identify churchless Christians in an unbiased way, a 76-question survey was carried out in the Highlands and Islands (including the Orkneys and Hebrides), which generated 423 usable completed surveys. The goal was to see if the findings from the first study could be generalised.
  • “Faith in Scotland”, 2015 – The aim of this study was to look at differences between rural and urban areas. 815 telephone interviews with churchless Christians were carried out in total.

The term Christian means different things to different people: at one end of the spectrum are people for whom their faith is central to everything they do, and who try and live it out; at the other end are those for whom Christian has less practical impact and is closer to being a cultural label. In order to try and make some kind of distinction between different groups in the Investigating the Invisible Church survey, a number of questions were included to locate respondents on the “Hoge Intrinsic Religiosity Scale”. The summary report on this study linked to above explains that “It would be inappropriate and incorrect to apply labels such as “nominal”, “committed” or “devout” to groups within the sample according to their scores on this scale. However, it is noticeable that what might be called “high scorers” … show significant differences in their responses … compared with “low scorers”.” At a minimum I take this to mean that there are statistically significant differences in opinion between those who broadly-speaking come across as more religious and those who come across as less religious.


Some of The Interesting Results

I suppose I should give a spoiler alert here in case you’ve got this book in your “To Be Read” pile! Here are six things that stood out to me, or that I think might be of interest to others, with some quotations from the book:

  • Consumerism was only rarely the cause of leaving. Leavers had often been members of local churches for a long time: half of those who responded to the 2014 survey had attended regularly for more than ten years, and about half of this half (i.e. a quarter overall) had attended for more than twenty years. This survey also found that most people disengaged gradually (57%) rather than suddenly (22%), though there might have been an incident at church that acted as a ‘final straw’. For a fifth of people a life crisis unrelated to church (e.g. marriage breakdown or ill health) had proved to be the tipping point, with this being particularly the case for those who had been regular attenders for over twenty years. And for one sixth they had trouble finding a new church where they belonged after moving house.

“The data indicates that choices to switch, leave or not engage with a church congregation are more of a ‘wrench’ than a ‘flit’. Those who are motivated primarily by simple, rational, consumerist preferences are the exception rather than the norm.” (p36)

  • Disengagement did not actually imply a desire to avoid meeting up with other Christians – just not in the settings currently offered by local churches. Leavers were often active in starting to meet with others in informal groups.

“Ironically, some of the most common reasons given for their reluctant departure from congregational life relate to the frustration and disappointment of not finding there the very qualities extolled in the New Testament as the touchstones of Christian fellowship. Interviewees spoke of a lack of love, a coldness and superficiality… Most interviewees described how, having ceased church-going, they had formed friendships or linked into informal groups which had Christian fellowship as an important part of their purpose.” (p43)

  • A quarter of Churchless Christians had felt that they didn’t fit in when they had been part of a church. However, a large fraction of Churchless Christians felt connected to the church considered in a wider sense (the world-wide church), with this being particularly the case for those who were older or scored higher on the Hoge scale (i.e. those appearing more religious).

“… Regardless of age, previous experience of church, score on the Hoge scale, and gender, about a quarter agreed with the statement ‘I used to go to church but felt that I didn’t fit in.

However, this lack of ‘belongingness’ in local congregations does not translate into a sense of alienation from the wider Church. Half of respondents indicated that they felt part of the worldwide Christian community. … Unsurprisingly, of those with higher than average scores on the Hoge scale a significantly higher proportion agreed with this statement [‘I feel part of the worldwide Christian community’] (66 per cent) compared with those who scored less than average … 34 per cent …” (p84)

  • Some Churchless Christians were open to the possibility of becoming part of a recognised church congregation again. For Scotland as a whole, 1 in 7 Churchless Christians for whom faith was very important would have liked to attend, but were prevented from attending due to health issues. Others would be willing to try other expressions of church, were they available in their area. For those in this latter category,

“On the whole, these people would appreciate more informal expressions of church and, crucially, opportunities to ask questions and explore doubts. In the Highlands and Islands, for example, 8 per cent of all those who identified themselves as Christians but not church-goers said that they would welcome the opportunity ‘to join a small group of Christians who meet in homes and discuss faith and life together.'” (p34)

  • However, a majority of Churchless Christians are “contentedly non-congregational”. Some pointed to specific benefits. The second quotation below might be particularly surprising.

“One married couple described how their disengagement from church had led to a deepening of their relationship with one another and a deepening of their devotional life…” (p46)

“… research in Northern Scotland found that just under a third of non-congregational Christians agreed with the statement, ‘Not being involved in a traditional church congregation frees me to pursue what I believe is my Christian calling.'” (p34)

  • This next one might also be a surprise. Some of the Churchless Christians Dr. Aisthorpe interviewed had never been part of a church congregation – and of these, some had used their initiative to set up their own groups to explore faith.

“These were often men and women who had discovered the Christian faith either through an evangelistic course (e.g. Christianity Explored or Alpha) or through a visit to a Christian community (e.g. Iona, Taize), but had not engaged with a church congregation since. They spoke of the contrast they found between the lively, interactive and hospitable setting in which they had discovered the Christian faith and their experience of local congregations. In each case, these people have initiated or become part of a small informal group …” (p32)

Although one of the studies was designed to examine the differences between urban and rural areas, there was relatively little about this in the book and I think this is one of its biggest limitations. I would have really liked to see a chapter specifically on this subject. The options available church-wise in a small village and a major city can be very different, and even after reading through the book twice, I’m still not sure how much is more reflective of a rural/low-population density context.


A Few Personal Reflections

One of the challenges I’ve found in writing a blog this year has been taking my personal experiences and setting them into a wider context. It isn’t always easy to generalise, and where a subject is one I care a lot about, it is highly tempting to generalise too readily.

“Fitting in at church” is a subject I care about. As I’ve said elsewhere, I became a Christian at university some fifteen or so years ago. While I haven’t looked back since, I’ve often found it difficult to fit in at church; for a while in my late twenties I largely stopped attending on a Sunday, and even now (pandemic aside) I rarely attend every week – though I rarely miss a midweek homegroup. In short, from my own experience I know that you can indeed be a “churchless” Christian for a time. This isn’t to say this situation is ideal; only that, depending on personal circumstances, it can be a practical reality.

The book itself is largely positive about the faith of churchless Christians in Scotland, and I hope that in the previous section I’ve fairly reflected both this positive tone and some of the conclusions of the author. Bringing in the ideas in the previous two paragraphs now: reading Dr. Aisthorpe’s research, and finding it in sympathy with my own experiences, the temptation for me is to get a bit carried away and be over-excited about what the state of the “churchless Christian” population in Scotland, or by extrapolation the UK as a whole, might be like. This is a temptation the author recognises themselves, and at the end of a chapter critiquing stereotypes of Churchless Christians (e.g. that they are “backsliders” or “Christian in name only”), addresses as follows:

“One person who commented on a draft of this chapter taught me a new word in the process. He suggested that I might be in danger of ‘enantiodromia’…. the tendency to replace one thing with its opposite. In this case, his concern was that I might replace one set of stereotypes and prejudices with a romanticised or rose-tinted picture of those who leave church. He has a point. In attempting to simplify complex data, I am guilty of ‘generalising.’ However, the observations I have shared reflect the dominant themes and patterns.” (p54)

The overall impression I get is that, while the picture of Churchless Christians in Scotland is far from uniform, there really is more authentic Christian faith than might be anticipated.

Looking at the positive traits mentioned in the previous section which some Churchless Christians display – from willingness to meet together to learn, to using initiative in setting up informal groups, to concern for living out one’s calling in the world (including with a “mission” focus in some cases) – makes the separation from other Christians in local congregations all the more regrettable. The later chapters of the book go into the reasons that people disengage from church in detail. I thought about discussing some of them here, but I think this post is long enough. It’s a thought-provoking book that I enjoyed reading, and would particularly recommend to those interested in thinking about the current state of the church in the UK and “why it is as it is”.


Having read this book, I’m interested in whether it resonates with the situation in England, particularly in the South where I live – or for that matter elsewhere. I would be interested to hear any thoughts you have on the Churchless Christian “Scene”. I would also welcome any recommendations of books / research you might know of – can anyone point me in a helpful direction?

Until the next post!


Summary of Books and Links

The Invisible Church, Steve Aisthorpe, Saint Andrew Press, 2016.

Resourcing Mission – Mission Research Joint research by the Church of Scotland and partner organisations.

Church culture, Culture, Life, Uncategorized

The length of time it takes to make friends

On Friday morning I came across an article on Business Insider . It was based on the results of a study called “How many hours does it take to make a friend?”, which looked into how long friendships at different levels of closeness take to form.

The “how” of making friends is something I’ve thought about a lot over the last ten years, so as soon as I read this article I knew what my next blog post would be about. I was excited to find some hard numbers to go with my musings on the subject.


So… how many hours does making a friend take?

The study mentioned mentioned at the start of this post, by Jeffrey A. Hall of the University of Kansas, looked at two groups of people: adult Americans who had moved to a new city in the US in the preceding six months; and students who had recently started their courses at a particular US university. By means of surveys, samples of the two groups were asked about friendships they had recently formed, and in the case of the students these friendships were then tracked over a short period of time. Inter-personal relationships were split into four categories: acquaintances, casual friends, friends, and good/close friends. The main things the study measured were the time, in hours, that people spent together, and what that time consisted of (working together or social occasions? activities or talking? talking about what?).

The study goes into things like differences between a student population and a general adult population, how to define different types of social activity, whether statements in surveys are likely to be under- or over-estimates, and so on. For the purposes of this blog post, I’m only really interested in a few of the results:

  • Timescales. Not all acquaintances turn into friends, but where this happens the study found:
    • to go from acquaintances to casual friends takes something like 40-60 hours spent together.
    • to go from acquaintances to friends takes between 60 hours over 3 weeks (students) to 160 hours over 3 months (general population) spent together. Because of the way statistics were collected, the value of 160 is likely to be an over-estimate; a kind of “average value” for making a friend is something like 80-100 hours spent together.*
    • to go from acquaintances to good/close friends takes something like 120 hours over 3 weeks (students) to 220 hours over 3 months (general population) spent together. The average value for making a good/best friend is estimated at over 200 hours for relationships that form over six or more weeks.*

[*These figures are totals, i.e. for students 120 hours spent together in 3 weeks could be enough to go all the way from acquaintances to good friends.]

  • How time is spent together matters. Simply spending time in the same place (e.g. for work or study) is not associated with closeness of friendships. Choosing to spend more time together socially is.
  • It matters what you talk about. In relationships that become closer, people spend time catching up and joking around – as well as talking about more deep and meaningful things. Time spent in small talk (e.g. about the weather) is negatively correlated with increasing friendship closeness.

The number of hours involved in making a friend is large. 100 hours spent together over 3 months might not sound much over that long a time period, but it is an average of about 8 hours a week!

This sounds to me still quite a high “social intensity” (average hours per week). Where social intensity is lower, I think it is reasonable that the total number hours taken for a friendship to form is likely to be higher. For what I want to talk about in the rest of the post this is the case, so I am going to take a round 50 for the number of hours to form a casual friend, and a round 100 for the number of hours to form a friend.


Putting these numbers to use

Here’s why I find having some numbers on this subject interesting: it gives a way to assess an activity and calculate a rough estimate of how long it might take to make a friend through it.

So, for example, pre-Covid I went to a social drawing evening once a month. Some of the same people were there each time – say 10 out of every 12 evenings – and I spent 2-3 hours there a time. This gives a total of about 10 x 2.5 = 25 hours per year spent with some of the members of the group. This is about half of the time needed to turn an acquaintance into a casual friend – the process might be underway, but isn’t complete. After going to the group for about a year, I think this would be a fair description of the “status” of my relationship to those people I know only through this group and with whom I get on reasonably well. Making casual friends from this activity might take about 2 years in total.

This approach obviously isn’t in any way precise, but only a kind of ball-park estimate. However, I think it’s a useful way of analysing social situations and thinking through how friendships might develop.


Musing about how this could be used to think about church

Those who follow my blog will know that I often write about church culture and Christianity. Here are a couple of suggestions about how the kind of estimates described above might come in useful.

How long does it to make a friend at church?

I’ve often heard talks that mention making church a welcoming place for new people. And rightly so! But I can’t remember anyone ever making an estimate of how long it takes to make a friend within a welcoming church. This might be quite a useful thing to know.

When it comes to friendship formation, the church meetings/services I’m used to occupy a kind of intermediate category, somewhere between working/studying and a fully social occasion: they are something adults choose to go to, but a meeting mostly involves interacting with either those leading the service (e.g. by listening to a talk/sermon) or God (e.g. through prayer), rather than directly interacting with the people you’re sat next to. So attending church with someone may be a positive influence on friendship formation, but few people will make friends through going to services alone.

What about after a meeting/service? Most churches have some kind of social coffee time. In my experience of UK churches, coffee time tends to be pretty similar from church to church, typically taking about 30-45 minutes. I find I usually talk to a few different groups of people each week, and it is rare that I talk to the same person several weeks in a row. And generally I tend to attend church 2 or 3 Sundays out of 4. So, taking some ballpark figures, I might speak to someone I naturally get on well with once (maybe twice) a month after a service, for about 15 minutes at a time. Over a year, this adds up to around 3-6 hours time spent together – much less than the average 40-60 hours needed to make an acquaintance into a casual friend. So, even where a church is welcoming and people are friendly, a bit of basic maths shows that it is quite difficult to make a new friend through Sunday mornings alone. (Even if one were to speak to the same person for half an hour every week, a realistic estimate is that it might take a couple of years to develop a casual friendship.)

Most churches encourage people to go to a mid-week home group of some kind as well as coming to church on a Sunday morning. Home groups tend to involve the same people week-to-week, happen once a week for a couple of hours, and are semi-social occasions (a mixture of Bible study & prayer, and eating, drinking & catching up). How good are they for forming friendships? Well, assuming one attends for fifty weeks of the year, after one year this adds up to about 100 hours spent together (50 weeks x 2 hours per week). Assuming that a group has someone you hit it off with, six months of a mid-week group may be enough to make a casual friend, and a year enough to make a friend.

When I think about the house groups I’ve gone to and the people I know only through them, I think these estimates are not unreasonable. However, there is considerable variation between mid-week groups in group composition, style and how often they meet. Also, their nature means that some people often find them much easier to socially navigate than others. And shift-based employment or parenting needs can lower the frequency with which it is possible to attend. So while some people may form friendships in less than a year, for others it might take longer.

What do I make of this?

Summing up, according to this analysis, through Sunday mornings and mid-week groups alone it might be possible to make a casual friend in less than a year, and possibly even a friend – though this could also take considerably longer. To make a close friend in a single year would require spending considerably longer together outside of these activities, either socially or through something done together like volunteering.

I think this is interesting. To me it’s a surprisingly long time. Even in a friendly church, attending every Sunday and meeting with the same home group every week, after a year one might only have made a few casual friends – and making friends and good friends could easily take a couple of years.

Here are five thoughts / observations / consequences that occur to me –

  • A couple of years is a long time to go without Christian friends nearby! For some groups of people, particularly those in their twenties and thirties, this problem can be exacerbated by the need to change location multiple times for study and employment. I’ve lived in four different places as an adult myself (I’m mid-thirties now), and because of the distances involved I’ve had to make new local Christian friends in each place – taking several years each time.
  • This is bound to have implications for things like mental health and spiritual formation. These implications need not all be negative. For example, someone who’s used to living as a Christian without friends locally might develop a faith that’s resilient and has a positive kind of independence (even when other people aren’t available, God really is still with you!) There may also be implications for how a church utilises the gifts and talents of the church body – without getting to know someone fairly well, it can be hard to get a realistic idea of both what they can do (strengths) and what their limitations are.
  • While I have focused more on making friends within church in this post, I think the same kind of rationale can be used to think about making friends outside of church. If making a friend in one year takes over hundred hours, this equates to spending an average of something like 2 hours a week together socially. This is actually quite a lot – an evening each week. For people who have long work days and commutes, and already have families, regularly making new friends might be quite difficult – let alone close friends.
  • The length of time it takes to make a friend, whether in church or without, is largely limited by how long people have available to spend together. Lots of things affect this, not least the structure of our society. Structural factors are things like it is common to work in a different town to where you live. There is nothing right or wrong with these things per se, but they have knock-on effects. So, for example, one consequence of the need to commute is that it places a limit on how much time is available for social activities, which affects how quickly friendships can form, which in turn can affect things like mental health. One thing that might come out of the current crisis is an assessment of the viability of an increase in remote working: could this help free up time spent commuting so that people can spend more time together socially?
  • The time it takes to make friends may have implications for church outreach. Church outreach is currently often based on an invitational model – invite people you know to come along! But if the timescale for making friends is too large, this kind of outreach might run into the problem that few people actually have someone new to invite.

What do you reckon? Is this way of analysing social situations useful? Can you think of any other consequences that the lengths of time it takes to make different types of friends might have? Do you know of any other simple estimates that can be used to analyse another aspect of society or church life? If so, do leave a comment, I’d be interested to hear about them.

Until the next post!

Bible Study, Theology, Uncategorized

Interesting Theology: “Theophany” and “The Angel of the LORD”

Last year I got a call from someone from a church small group I used to go to. Like a lot of church groups we had taken it in turns to lead Bible study series. Even though I don’t hold any academic theology qualifications, they had liked the style of the studies I had written for the group and wondered if I would write some for them and send them along. I was wondering what to do with my time, and was only too happy to do so.

I suggested we look at Exodus. I can’t remember why! But they happily agreed. And so I wrote a short 4-part series. The group was largely made up of people who had been Christians for a long time, so rather than start at the beginning of the book and go through it in a basic reading comprehension way (i.e. “who is Moses, who are the Israelites, what happens in the story, what do we learn from this?”) I tried to focus on broader or more difficult topics. This meant doing a lot of studying and research on my own part, which was a lot of fun, and although I came across a lot of questions to which I couldn’t find a definitive answer, I did find out some interesting things. And I’ve been thinking “why not share them on the blog? A lot of my readers are Christians and would be interested.” So over a few posts I intend to do just that, starting with this post on “Theophany and the Angel of the LORD.”

(All Biblical quotations are from the NIV translation of the Bible.)

That title is a bit imposing…

Using the word “Theophany” is a good way to make people nervous. But it expresses a simple idea. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as

Theophany: A visible manifestation to humankind of God or a god.

So to give a simple example, there is a Theophany in Genesis 3, the story of Adam and Eve:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”

In this story “God” is not an abstract figure. He is walking in the garden, and Adam and Eve could encounter him. That’s all a Theophany is: a story in which God is visible to people in some way. There are actually quite a lot of Theophanies in the Old Testament (more on this below). And the gospels that tell the story of Jesus’ life in the New Testament are Theophanies from start to finish!

What piqued my interest in this subject?

When I started thinking about writing studies on Exodus, I already knew of a few topics that I didn’t have a good grasp of myself. One of them was this. In Exodus, at the start of the story of Moses and the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, we read (Exodus 19 and 20):

The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai …
And God spoke all these words: …

What follows is the Ten Commandments, which all the people of Israel hear; after this Moses goes up onto Mount Sinai to talk to the LORD, and receive the rest of the terms of the Mosaic/Old Covenant. But, in the New Testament, we read things like this in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7):

He [Moses] was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us.

Whereas the Exodus passage seems to talk about God descending on Mount Sinai, the New Testament writers (who knew their Old Testament well) talk about Moses receiving the Covenant from an angel. This sounds like quite a difference! So I decided to do a bit of research to try and understand why the New Testament writers say what they do.

The Angel of the LORD

The story of Moses on Mount Sinai starts half-way through the book of Exodus. After reading it, I went back to the beginning of the book . Near the start is the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3&4):

Now Moses was tending the flock… and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. …

When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” … “I am the God of your father, …”

At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

The LORD said, …

This story starts off talking about “the angel of the LORD” , but quickly switches to saying that God spoke to Moses. The passage doesn’t maintain a distinction between “the angel of the LORD” and “God”.

After speaking to God at the burning bush, Moses went to Egypt to speak to Pharaoh. Their first meeting was a disaster. Not only did Pharaoh not listen to Moses, he decided to make the working conditions harsher for the Israelites, who lived in Egypt as slaves. In response (Exodus 5),

Moses returned to the LORD…

This takes place only a couple of chapters after the story of the burning bush, so I think there is every reason to suppose that here Moses talks to God in exactly the same way he had done previously (though this isn’t stated explicitly).

Does this continue throughout Exodus? Asking a more precise question: whenever the text of Exodus says “The LORD said to Moses”, is Moses in conversation with the angel of the LORD, and no distinction is made between the words the angel speaks and God Himself speaking?

I think this is what the New Testament writers understood to have happened, though it sounds a bit strange to modern Western ears.

Questions of Identity

It is one thing to say that the Old Testament tells us that to see the angel of the LORD was in some sense to see God, but quite another to explain it!

The word angel means “messenger”, so in one sense “the angel of the LORD” means “the messenger of the LORD”. However Exodus distinguishes the angel of the LORD from other angels: the LORD tells Moses that His “Name” is in him (Exodus 23), and that if the angel of the LORD is with the Israelites His “Presence” is there with them (Exodus 33).

I don’t fully understand what this means. The angel is clearly God’s representative – a bit like how an ambassador is the representative of a king in a foreign country, and operates in his name and with his authority. But somehow this doesn’t seem quite enough. It’s rather like trying to talk about how Jesus is both human and God: it’s easier to say “it’s a bit like such-and-such an idea; but that isn’t quite right because…” than to positively say what’s correct.

Actually, some writers suggest that the angel of the LORD is a pre-incarnation manifestation of Jesus (e.g. Alec Motyer in “The Message of Exodus” in the “The Bible Speak Today” commentary series). I’m not sure this is right, because the New Testament makes a clear distinction between Jesus and angels (see the start of Hebrews). But perhaps, like with other things in the Old Testament, it is at least fair to think of the angel of the LORD as a kind of “foreshadowing” of that which is fully realised later on in Jesus.

What about other early Old Testament books?

I decided to go through the Bible starting from the very beginning, looking out for Theophanies and references to the angel of the LORD. The Bible is a long book, but scanning through quickly I got a long way into the Old Testament (at least as far as the end of Judges).

What jumped out at me is quite how often similar events to what Moses experienced at the burning bush occur, both before Exodus (in Genesis) and afterwards (in Judges). For example:

  • In Genesis 16, Hagar ran away after being mistreated by Abram’s (Abraham’s) wife Sarai (Sarah). The angel of the LORD appeared to Hagar and spoke to her. And Hagar believed she had seen God.
  • In Judges 6, the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, who did not recognise him. When Gideon eventually realises to whom he had been talking, he says “Ah, Sovereign LORD! I have seen the angel of the LORD face to face!” And fears for his life. This story is particularly interesting because of what happens next: even though the angel has disappeared, God speaks to Gideon – suggesting that God chooses to communicate with him in a way other than through the angel.
  • In Judges 13, the angel of the LORD appears to Manoah and his wife. Just like Gideon, they don’t recognise him until after making a burnt offering (a kind of sacrifice) to the LORD and seeing the angel of the LORD ascend up to heaven in the flame. Manoah, who would become Samson’s father, concludes “We are doomed to die! … We have seen God!” His wife has more sense, and points out that if God intended for them to die, He would not have accepted their sacrifice – or sent the angel of the LORD to give them instructions about the son they were going to have!

While none of these stories are identical, they have things in common. Those who see the angel of the LORD often conclude they have seen God Himself. And they often express fear for their life because they have seen God face to face.

There are many other Theophanies and references to the angel of the LORD in the early books of the Bible. One interesting thing is that on at least two occasions we are told that the angel of the LORD spoke to someone on the earth from heaven (Genesis 21 – another occasion on which the angel spoke to Hagar; and Genesis 22 – the testing of Abraham).

Talking to God face to face

At the end of the giving of the Covenant on Mount Sinai, there is this (Exodus 23):

See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him.”

Exodus 33 puts it a different way – “My Presence will go with you…”. This is a promise that was kept. In Judges 2, after the Israelites had entered Canaan under Joshua,

The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bokim and said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, …'”

Just as at the burning bush, for the angel of the LORD to speak is for God to speak.

What happened between Mount Sinai and reaching Canaan? The Israelites had been told to listen to the angel of the LORD. However, the angel of the LORD doesn’t get mentioned (or at least not very often). But there are many statements of “the LORD said to Moses”. At first the LORD met with Moses at a tent set aside for this purpose; this was replaced at Mount Sinai by a special structure called the “Tabernacle” that was built according to a pattern that Moses was shown by God. The LORD is described as being in the cloud in passages like the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 13&14). Exodus 33 tells us

As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. … The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.

While the angel isn’t specifically mentioned here, I think the idea that Moses was speaking to the angel in these encounters makes sense; as we have seen already the Biblical text doesn’t preserve a distinction between the angel speaking and God speaking. It also gives a literal meaning to Moses speaking to God “face to face”.

Different Degrees of Theophany

Last but not least, a short observation. The Theophanies of the Old Testament show different degrees to which God revealed himself:

  • Gideon and Manoah both met the angel of the LORD. They treated him with respect, but didn’t at first know who he was.
  • When Moses met the angel of the LORD at the burning bush, he was told he stood on holy ground, and had to take his shoes off.
  • When Moses, Aaron and the elders of Israel “saw the God of Israel” and ate a meal in His presence to celebrate the ratification of the Old Covenant, what they saw went beyond the earthly: “Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself.” (Exodus 24)
  • After the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses asked God to show him his glory. He was told “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But, ” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live.” Moses was then given a revelation of God on the top of Mount Sinai. (Exodus 33&34)
  • When the Tabernacle had been set up, “Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.”

For someone to simply see the angel of God was in a true sense to “see” God; but greater revelations were possible. The same thing is true in the New Testament with Jesus. Some people saw Jesus but didn’t recognise him; others saw him and recognised who he was; only a very few went up the mountain with him and saw the Transfiguration.

Wrapping it up

I hope you found that interesting. It’s a subject I enjoyed looking into, and one I can’t remember being discussed in a comprehensive fashion in church.

My conclusions about the role of the angel of the LORD above aren’t fixed in stone. They’re the best I came up with after looking up references and thinking about it – but I’m happy to be proved wrong. This is a topic where the Bible doesn’t spell out the details explicitly, and I found it necessary to gather information from lots of different passages and try to synthesize it together. The tricky bit is finding conclusions that satisfy all the evidence. Taking any one passage by itself can give a misleading impression of the overall picture.


That’s it for this post. Feel free to leave comments below or drop me an e-mail. Until next time!

Church culture, Life, Mental Health, Uncategorized

“Church” – it’s an intimidating place to go to for the first time, you know?

So there I was on the street corner. Looking around I couldn’t see anyone I knew. Or anyone at all. Good. That’s what I’d been after. I’d been here before, but there had been people about.

I’d been working up the courage to go into a place like this for some time. Seizing the opportunity while the coast was clear, I moved quickly across the short garden-y-bit and ducked inside.

Where was I going that I feared to be seen? The area where I lived at this time had a mixed reputation. Some nice shops and restaurants. A small supermarket. Lots of pubs. A few “adult” shops with boarded windows…

But it wasn’t any of these. It was ten in the morning and I was … … going into the small Anglican church at the end of my road.

Gasp!

Why all the secrecy?

My upbringing actually had a lot of “church” in it. My parents took me with them on Sundays when I was a younger child, and the school I went to as an older child had its own high-church Anglican chapel, complete with resident chaplain and compulsory weekly services. But I didn’t enjoy going, and was glad to leave it behind.

I still thought of myself as a Christian. However, despite all the time I’d spent listening to sermons, my understanding of Christianity wasn’t at all good. This became clear to me during my first year of university, at which point I started investigating Christianity for myself. And pretty soon I actually wanted to go to church.

I was really self-conscious about it. I feared people I knew seeing me, and thinking less of me or mocking me. I’d experienced plenty of not-fitting-in and mockery in my childhood and early teens. I had hated it, and dreaded being treated that way again.

So, when I started going to church, I did it in secret. I would note down what time services were, and go out for a walk nearby before service time. If there was no-one around and I was feeling brave I would go inside. And sit on my own and leave again quite quickly afterwards – hoping of course that no-one would be there to see me leave.

Eventually (and to my advantage) this system broke down. A year after my one and only foray to the small church described in the introduction, I had settled into a pattern of going to my college chapel on a Sunday evening. One Sunday I went along and to my shock a friend I knew quite well was there with their mother, who happened to be down visiting that weekend. They spoke to me after the service and my friend invited me to come along with them to their church the following week. Which I duly did, and from then on I started attending a Church of England church in the normal fashion, instead of hiding out in the chapel.

If you had a Christian friend, why didn’t you go with them to church from the get-go?

From the first year of university onwards, I had several friends who were Christians. They actually made a big impact on me, though they wouldn’t have known it at the time. How? They went to church – get this – on a Wednesday evening. Not just on a Sunday, which I could understand; but why would anyone go on a weekday evening? I had no idea, I was just so surprised. (It was for a mid-week Bible study, in case you’re wondering what the answer is. I didn’t know people did that!)

So when some time later I decided to go to church, why did I keep my activities secret and not just go with my friends? I mentioned above that at this point in time my understanding of Christianity wasn’t good. And that from school I had plenty of experience of not fitting in and being mocked. Both of these came into play.

At my high-church Anglican school there had been a “Confirmation” service every year. For those unfamiliar with the Anglican system, “Confirmation” is basically a ceremony where adolescents or adults who have been baptised as infants declare that they are going to live as Christians, after which time they are allowed to take part in eating the bread and wine during Communion / Mass / the Eucharist (hopefully at least one of these terms is familiar.) At least, that is how Confirmation functioned at my school.

But … I had never been confirmed. Even though I had wanted to take part, to put myself forward would have meant expressing something which seemed intensely personal. This meant exposing myself to potential ridicule, and I just couldn’t do it.

So at university I reasoned as follows. I think of myself as a Christian. If I went to church with my friends, things would be fine – until it was time for Communion. But then I wouldn’t be able to take part. Other people my age at the church (my friends included) would find out that I hadn’t been Confirmed. They’d say I wasn’t a proper Christian at all, and be unkind to me.

I know now that my understanding of Christianity, and my expectations of what churches are like and how adult Christians (or in fact people in general) normally treat each other were all way off. But at the time all I had to go on were my experiences of religion and how people treat one another from childhood. So I had negative expectations, and I didn’t go to church with my friends but went in secret instead.

In the end, in my third year of university I did “solve” the Confirmation problem. The college chapel offered Confirmation classes. I got the courage to e-mail the chaplain and sign up. I went to the classes at lunchtimes and then got confirmed in the big university church. Without telling anyone I knew (except my parents… to whom I gave only short notice the week before, in the hope they wouldn’t decide to come!) Thereafter, I felt comfortable with going to church with my friends and family.

At which point, it quickly turned out that proper Christianity was nothing like what I had been brought up with, or what I expected, and all my worries about Confirmation had been completely needless …

Final thoughts

Because of my prior life experiences, I found that starting to go to church on my own as an adult was very difficult. So I’m highly conscious of the fact that for many people the idea of going church is imposing or threatening.

In my case the view of church I had was like something out of an ITV adaptation of Miss Marple – old-fashioned in style; sermons that were often dry and irrelevant; people who didn’t want to be there, and went through the motions “because it was the done thing”; or people who claimed to have a faith, but didn’t live like it touched their lives at all. I didn’t associate church with anything life-giving. But since then I’ve found that my early experiences weren’t reflective of what Christianity is really all about, or what church or Christian people can be like.

While there is much that is bad about the coronavirus and the lockdown situation, one positive to come out of it is that a lot of churches are now live-streaming their services. I’m excited by this. It means that people can now see what churches are like, and encounter ordinary Christian people for whom their faith does make a difference in their day-to-day lives, and hear what Christianity is actually all about – without a social barrier getting in the way. There’s real potential here for changing perceptions and overcoming misconceptions.

That’s a positive note to end on. Catch you in the next post!

Church culture, Life, Uncategorized

And my least favourite question to be asked is…

The church I go to has just started a new sermon series all about mental health, following a short guide called “Livability”. Each chapter of this book looks at a figure from the Bible, and uses their story as a starting point to talk about a particular aspect of mental health such as depression or anxiety. As I have said before on the blog, I have personal experience with social anxiety and agoraphobia. Writing about my own experiences may be useful for others, and given that my church is focusing on it (hello to this part of my audience!) now is a good moment to do so.

In today’s post I want to want to talk about my least favourite question to be asked.


My least favourite question is a really simple one.

It’s a really common one.

It’s an innocuous looking one.

Ready?

So what do you do for a living?

Really? That’s it? What’s so bad about that?

Everyone’s experience of life is different. For me, this really is the number-one worst question out there. Honestly, I dread it. Doesn’t matter where I am – the pub, at church, meeting friends-of-friends socially. Why?

One of the areas where I’ve struggled most with adult life is employment. I’m now mid-thirties. I’ve never yet had a full-time job.

After writing that last sentence, I automatically started adding other sentences to qualify and explain it. But I’ve decided to get rid of them to leave it on its own. Because this really cuts to the heart of the issue – the importance of employment is so fundamental within our culture that an explanation is needed. Without offering one, its at best a puzzle; at worst it might be assumed I’m a person of questionable character. (Gasp! Sharp intake of breath!)

I want you to keep reading, so I’d better justify myself a bit to put you at your ease. I’m neither useless nor lazy. Every year I have had some work – sometimes one part-time job (though perhaps very part-time), sometimes two. All in the secondary/tertiary education sector, so entailing a reasonable level of diligence and responsibility. But, taking into account my limitations – in particular social anxiety – as well as my skill-set, and up to now I have found it difficult to match to a full-time role, whether to do with education or something else.

Which is a problem. I’m far from idle the rest of the time – learning new technical skills, volunteering with several different charities in a small way, as well as producing useful things like this blog and the website that hosts it. However, the usual social expectation for a mid-thirties guy is having a full-time job. And this means answering questions about “what I do for a living” gets tricky. Obviously, jobs are about earning money. But in terms of social function they do more than that. Having a full-time job shows

  • Something about your values: that you are willing to work to provide for yourself and others.
  • Something about your value: if you have a job, it means someone considers you worthy of working for them. There is a level of accreditation just from having a job.

In other words, the social worth of having a job is partly in showing you are happy to be a “decent” or “contributing” member of society. This is one of two reasons I can think of that unemployment or underemployment is psychologically hard: your value as a member of society is immediately put under question. Perhaps this statement is a little over-negative. But the cumulative effect of giving an explanation of your circumstances to lots of different people, each of whom really is well-meaning, can lead to feeling rather under-siege and defensive. Particularly with the often-negative media coverage of people without full-time work lurking in the background (even though, in reality, the people whose lifestyles they decry are very much in the minority.)

(The other reason un-/under-employment is psychologically hard is simply that not earning enough money to provide for yourself and your dependants sucks. I am fortunate in that I have been able to live with family in economic circumstances that mean I have never had contact with the benefits system. But reading about the difficulties of those who have needed to use it, I am highly sympathetic as it is obviously far from easy.)

The upshot of this is that I find talking to people for the first time can be jolly awkward. When the subject of employment comes up, as it almost inevitably does, what do I say? Do I simply say that I have a job in the education sector? This feels awkward, as it gives the impression of something full-time, and I dislike being misleading. So do I say I have a part-time job in the education sector? But that brings up the questions of why-only-part-time, and what-else-am-I-looking-for. Which is immediately a can of worms. I have come to accept that I can’t expect to get a full-time role in the short term. It may happen – in which case, great! – but I can’t rely on it. But I don’t really want to tell my whole life story, explain about issues with anxiety and so on, right when meeting someone for the first time.

So when I meet new people I feel this question hanging over me, and am embarrassed and sheepish. What I say depends on who I’m talking to. Sometimes I give a response like “I have a part-time job writing maths teaching materials for secondary/tertiary level students.” Not a bad answer. If I’m feeling less confident, I just say something more evasive like “Not very much at the moment.” Which actually gets some hilarious responses. I went to a social event a couple of years ago that was well-attended by some people from my old school. Now, I have always been particularly good at maths and physics, which got me marked out as a smart cookie – someone really going places. The idea that at the moment I might not be very successful in career terms, and my “Not very much at the moment” might be based on awkwardness, embarrassment and shame… didn’t seem to compute. They assumed that my reticence meant I must be doing something I can’t talk about, so I must work for MI5 – which is hilarious, and naturally something I denied. But, they figured, if I worked for the security services then denying it is exactly what I would do… To this day I don’t know what they think. Some kind of bearded James Bond?

A guy who works part-time walks into a church. And everyone in turn says..

At one point in my twenties I joined a new church. For anyone who doesn’t know, the way churches usually work is that there is a formal “meeting” with a Bible reading, talks, prayers and songs, which is followed by a social time with tea and coffee, chatting and getting to know new people. Here’s an artists impression of how coffee-time chats went for the first few months:


Sunday 1, coffee person 1: Are you new here? Tell me about yourself, what do you do? Oh, you don’t have a full-time job yet? Well how I got my first one was…

What a friendly person! That’s a good sign.

Sunday 2, coffee person 2: Hello there! I don’t believe we’ve met. What’s you name? What do you do for a living? Ok. What sort of thing are you looking for?

Quite like last week. But I suppose I am new here.

Sunday 3, coffee person 3: Hello, my conversation is surprisingly like that of coffee person 1! But instead of telling you about how I got my first job, I’ll tell you about my son and how he got his current job.

I’m sensing a pattern.

Sunday 4, coffee person 1 (again): Hello! Good to see you here again today. How’s the job search coming along?

Someone talk about something else next week, please.

Sunday 5, coffee person 4: Hello, I haven’t spoken to you before. You won’t know this, but my favourite subject is talking about the details of my health problems. In detail. Whether anyone is going green or not. Now it all started when…. … … and then it fell out … and you’ll never guess the colour of … Why are the lights out? And where has everyone gone? No-one in this church ever listens to me…

That’s not what I meant by something else! Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!!!! TMI!


I’m being light-hearted, but to make a serious point. Everyone I spoke to meant really well. The questions they asked were perfectly reasonable – most people do have an occupation of some sort, so asking about it is a sensible way of getting a conversation going. They really were interested in finding out about me. Interested in sharing their stories with me, and giving advice, in the hope that my life would be improved as a result. But overall the effect was like coming up against a wall. Employment was a barrier. I had to cross it somehow in order to talk about other things, and so be a “proper” adult member of the church.

For this, and other reasons, I stopped going to church for a while – and when I did my attendance was sporadic. Eventually, the barrier was breached. For a couple of weeks the church ran a project. Volunteers with a can-do attitude were needed. After several days of using tools and wielding a paintbrush, I had shown I was willing to work hard, diligent and could produce a quality result. It was like passing an audition; suddenly I was able to talk about all sorts of things with the other men from church. And I felt much more like I belonged.

So what’s the take-home?

So there’s a few thoughts from my personal library of stories to do with employment and inclusion. Is there a lesson? I don’t think there’s just one simple one. But here’s a few ideas:

  • When it comes to community inclusion, activities like “helping re-decorate a house before someone moves in” can be really helpful. I’ve been involved in this particular activity at least three times, and each time its really useful for getting to know new people. The value isn’t just in the end product – though that is the goal. But in the process of achieving this product, they function like auditions. Does someone turn up, work hard, and to a good standard? Its a chance to show what you are made of when, for some reason, you can’t do this so easily in words.
  • Sometimes, even when everyone means well, social barriers can be set up accidentally. This is just something to be aware of.
  • Employment is a particularly bad area for barriers as money is foundational – it’s needed for buying cars, houses, supporting a partner and children…. So to put up a wall on the subject of “jobs” can effectively mean putting barriers on these other things too.
  • In my experience churches aren’t immune to the problem of accidental barriers. Being a “responsible” member of the community is part of a mature Christian life. For those who are in traditional job-for-life roles such as teachers, doctors and lawyers (who are hardly lacking in UK churches), appearing to satisfy this type of responsibility is pretty much locked in. But not everyone is in the same boat. For those of us who really struggle with employment, showing evidence of this kind of responsibility is much harder. Where there is a social expectation and you don’t appear to meet it, there is a danger of feeling second tier, or even being treated this way (sadly, there are cases I’m aware of where this has happened).

So there’s some of my thoughts on jobs and inclusion. Currently lots of people – I think over 6 million? – are on furlough due to the virus outbreak. Its possible that when things open back up there will be more unemployment, though I hope that doesn’t happen. But this is perhaps a good time to be talking about these issues.

So to quickly sum up the entire post: opening a conversation with asking about employment isn’t wrong per se. But because of the social factors involved the conversation can get tricky quickly. Next time you meet someone new, why not ask about their interests first?

Catch you in the next post!

Church culture, Digital, Uncategorized

Digital potential, part 1 – the sum is far greater than the individual parts

Our survey says…

Last autumn I took it upon myself to do a (totally unofficial) survey of how technology is used by the different churches in my town and the surrounding villages. I used Google to draw up a list of all the churches in the area, then working outwards I went through the websites of these churches one by one, making a note of things like

  • Do they actually have a website?
  • How well does it work? Is it frequently updated?
  • How well does the site describe services, facilities and activities?
  • Does the site have things for particular interest groups (e.g. 20s-30s, marriage-prep, Alpha)?
  • How well does the site use media (audio, video), and does the church use social media?
  • Does the website gives examples of where church members can get involved in using technology, and are these supporting roles (e.g. operating AV equipment) or creative (video production, animation, graphical design etc.)?
  • Does the church use only its own resources, or point people to carefully chosen external resources?
  • How well is the church website digitally integrated into the Christian community in the Aylesbury area (e.g. by advertising events at other churches)?
  • How well is the church website integrated into the wider community, for example by linking to groups from outside the church that use its facilities during the week (e.g. NHS support groups, fitness classes, Alcoholics Anonymous)?

This survey had some obvious limitations. It only provided a snapshot of a church’s digital footprint at one moment in time, it only included items that churches chose to externally advertise (so intra-church WhatsApp groups got overlooked) and so on. Despite this, I thought it was a worthwhile activity to try. Modern technology has already changed the world, and a good question to ask is whether the church (as a whole) is making the best use of it. As someone who spends a lot of time in front of a computer, this is a question I felt I could have a reasonable go at assessing. As a by-product, I gained a good overview of the Christian groups in the area and how they are involved in their wider communities. Which is no bad thing.

Here is some of what I found out.

And the winner of “Best Website” goes to…

Okay, I’m not really going to rank church websites in order of greatness. But some are better than others. Overall, churches with a larger congregation or from a more modern denomination (e.g. Vineyard, New Frontiers) had a better web presence. In comparison, smaller, more established congregations were weaker in this area. This was true of churches in the town as well as in the surrounding villages.

The obvious reason I can think of for this is that making and maintaining a website takes resources (a lot of time, some money) and a degree of expertise. Also, technology (particularly social media) skews towards the skill set of younger people, and there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation whereby tech-savvy people are pulled towards a church that is already tech-savvy…

Some of the best use of technology was actually by churches set up to cover the new housing estates. With hindsight this is hardly surprising, as taking into account their target audience (and in some cases lack of a building) they have had to innovate and engage with modern methods of communication in order to succeed.

The stopping point

Some websites were very basic, giving little more detail than services times, contact details and information that certain types of activity existed during the week. Others were much more fully-featured with libraries of recorded sermons (though some of these seemed to be pretty erratic selections), information on volunteering opportunities, pages describing social action and supported missionaries, and so on.

There was a point at which even the best websites ran out: creative content and resource curation. Some churches had music they had recorded, book reviews, or an introductory video. However, creative content of this sort was always pretty limited. Also, there was generally little attempt to link to external resources, even from within the same denomination. There’s an obvious reason for these things – creating content takes time (it takes me a day to write something as long as a blog post), and so does updating websites. Blogs and “news” sections in particular were often rather like zombies – they’re dead, they’ve clearly been dead for a long time, but they get trapped in an archive as no-one can bear to finish them off.

Everything community

When it came to “community” I was particularly interested in three things: how well churches cooperated with each other, how well churches catered for special interest groups, and how well churches seemed to be integrated with the wider community.

For the first of these, the short answer is: when it comes to technology, most churches hardly seem to interact with each other at all. For one church to link to events or resources at another did happen, but it was actually quite rare – even within a denomination.

Some special interest groups were well catered for. Most churches had a children’s programme, though the extent of it varied. Likewise, there was often provision made for senior citizens, men’s and women’s ministry, and mother-and-baby groups. This was often the point at which official programmes ran out. This isn’t really surprising, as most churches are of a similar size (more than fifty, max a few hundred), have a quorum of children and the elderly to care for, and both too few people in other special interest groups and too little time for running anything else.

When it comes to integration with the wider community, the visibility of this on websites varies greatly. Some churches have a wide programme of social action going on and are keen to talk about it. At the other end of the spectrum, some seem reluctant even to mention the public-service organisations (NHS support groups, disabled clubs, Alcoholics Anonymous etc.) that use their buildings during the week. And few indeed mention those that operate at other churches.

Drawing the threads together and making suggestions

In one sense my survey is now way out of date. As a result of the coronavirus lockdown, churches have been adopting new technology across the board in order to keep functioning. The church I go to now has an active social media group for the whole church, Zoom services on a Sunday, and even Zoom homegroups during the week. However, running in the background there is a strong undercurrent of “this situation is temporary, then we’ll be able to get back to meeting together in person.” Which naturally leads to the question: if the lockdown ends soon, will the new technology be jettisoned as quickly as it has arrived?

I think its an open question. Lockdown is a developing situation, and even the best guess is unlikely to be totally right. The thing that concerns me is not so much whether my particular church keeps this or that specific bit of technology going, but rather that in the desire for the familiarity of physical community the church (in the broader sense) might simply return to what it was doing before without giving the wider role of technology much thought.

Over the last few years I have been thinking that it would be a good idea if churches worked together more. Here are a few ways in which greater cooperation in the digital sphere would be useful:

  • Currently each church reinvents the same wheel. Is there any margin in the idea that churches work together on shared webspace, freeing up resources for doing extra things rather than duplicating the same functionality? As an example: the evidence suggests that no church can support a “church blog”. But if churches worked together, maybe they could?
  • Currently, larger churches have better technological capability, i.e. in a sense there is “digital poverty/inequality.” Is there a way in which more tech-savvy, larger churches can partner with smaller churches in the same area (even crossing denominational bounds)?
  • Digital roles tend to be support rather than explicitly creative, and creative work tends to be limited to introductory videos and youth work. Is there a way in which like-minded individuals from across the churches can be teamed up to make something more significant in the adult space?

Perhaps some of these things are already going on. In which case, do leave a comment below!

Phew. This post has got rather long. Hopefully there is something to get you thinking. One final suggestion:

Somebody please come up with a way for Christians in the same part of town to get to know each other! Currently people living a street away drive to different parts of town for church and don’t know each other exist. This is bonkers!!

See you in the next post!

Church culture, Life

Church culture, part 1 – the joy of singing?

Its a church with an informal style. Its a Sunday morning. Warm those voices up, its time for singing. Who doesn’t love a good sing?

Well…

Let the trauma begin

At the age of eight I moved to an all-boys school. It was a private school, which meant school days were a weird length (we finished at 5) and term dates were out of sync with the rest of society. The school had “a Christian ethos”, which meant that it had its own large Anglican chapel, a resident chaplain, assemblies with hymns from “Hymns Ancient And Modern”, and compulsory weekly services of a high-Anglican nature. In their first year at the school everyone had a “singing test” to see if they had any natural ability, with the hope of finding suitable candidates for the choir. Apparently I had enough ability for my parents to be asked if I would join. I was highly reluctant, and to my great relief I was allowed to escape this fate.

To be in the choir meant many things. Choir practice was at lunchtime, and took the place of football. Choir music was… traditional church choral music. If you were in the choir, then in services you had to wear a dress. Well, ok, technically “choir robes”. But if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…

And this was before we even got to the peer pressure. Take a load of boys without a lively Christian faith, put them in a cold chapel on a Friday evening when they’d rather be elsewhere, and ask them to sing ancient hymns to choir accompaniment. And then take into account the fact that the role model for a younger boy is an older boy… which matters because (due to puberty) older boys have a much deeper voice than younger boys and… you know what the result is? Well, its hardly going to be 8 year old boys enthusiastically learning to sing their high-pitched hearts out is it?

To be in the choir was to be mocked. And to sing, well, the rule was you don’t sing.

This of course drove the head of the music department nuts. Every Friday morning after assembly we had “congregational practice”, during which the poor man tried everything to teach us a little about how to sing and get us to practice the hymns. It was a pretty forlorn exercise. For those of us of a more obedient disposition, congregational practice meant a state of tension between the orders of the teacher and the pressure of the group. In my case the result was trying to sing… but in such a way that other people couldn’t hear me. Obviously, that just doesn’t work. Later on, I latched onto the idea of trying to sing lower than my natural voice.

Result: after ten years of “church singing”, I had

  • learnt the lesson that you don’t sing (though by 18 it was okay to sing if you sounded like Tom Jones or Eminem, i.e. a secular superstar).
  • learnt to sing in a uselessly inaudible fashion (no technique)
  • lost the ability to sing what I was hearing (by spending half a decade singing the wrong notes)

In fairness to the school my year-group was particularly sports obsessed, and the school has changed a lot since I was there. During my time it began the transition to co-ed and it has been modernised a lot. Who knows, maybe kids do like singing now!

Widening the field of view

The point of the above is to give a background as to why, for me, singing in church is usually not a fun activity. I lack both competence and confidence – and my technique is dreadful, so it often makes my throat hurt.

Now, many people do love “(sung) worship” as it is often called. Great! There is nothing wrong with singing Christian songs at all. One stereotype of Africa is that there everyone sings. But the UK is different: we don’t have a singing culture. Adult men sing at the football and at karaoke; otherwise we’re happy to watch, but generally leave singing to the professionals. Singing badly is a thing to be mocked. Singing among women is, I think, more socially accepted. Obviously I’m generalising here, but its a generalisation I feel that many people will identify with. In short, for many men simply being asked to sing in public is a bit of a facer.

In churches are there any things that aggravate the problem? Yes! Such as

  • Music factors: You know that bit in most modern church songs where the volume of the instruments drops low, so that just voices can be heard, and there is that lovely harmony? Well, think about what this means for those that have trouble with singing: their voices are directly exposed to public view. Or they have to stop for a break.
  • Language in modern songs: You know how these days teenage guys and single men show their appreciation for their male friends by telling them how much they adore them? No, neither do I. This isn’t language we use! But it is the language in our songs to God (who chooses to be known as a Father) and Jesus (in terms of his humanity, a human male). Mental gymnastics time!
  • Emotional expectations: Look at pictures of a service on a church website, and there’s a fairly good chance you’ll see a picture of a large number of people with their eyes shut, hands in the air, singing or praying. In this style of church there is an unwritten rule that “proper Christians not only love singing, but have an ecstatic emotional experience, in public.”

The issue of singing is picked up on in research from the States. In his book “Why Men Hate Going to Church” David Murrow gives this wonderful picture relating to the second point in the list above –

Picture two male hunters sitting in a duck blind… One hunter decides to express his affection for the other, using the words of a popular praise song. He turns to his friend and says, “Hey, buddy…

Your love is extravagant,
Your friendship, it is intimate
I feel I’m moving to the rhythm of Your grace
Your fragrance is intoxicating in this secret place.”

Readers, I cannot imagine saying these words to another man – especially one carrying a loaded shotgun.

This particular song isn’t so familiar in the UK, but you get the general idea. Its not that the ideas expressed are wrong, or that this song shouldn’t be sung, but if you ask a random bunch of men to sing this sort of stuff, don’t be surprised if men think that church isn’t for them. And this really gets to the heart of the problem. What and who is church for, and what is the singing for? In my observation, here are three groups that find singing an issue

  • Many adult Christian men often don’t sing, at least not with too much gusto, or stop part-way through songs for a break. (The more times a chorus is repeated, the more men stop singing – have a look out for this phenomenon!)
  • Teenage and young adult men often don’t sing, even if they have a Christian faith.
  • Non-Christian visitors (of both sexes), such as those who come into the church for things like baptisms, often don’t sing. I imagine that many of them often feel pretty uncomfortable with being asked to sing when really they’d rather not join in.

The church puts considerable effort into reaching out to people outside of the church (particularly to men), and in trying to bring up young men to adopt a lively faith for themselves. Now, for some people coming into the church and hearing sung worship is instrumental in bringing them to faith. However, I would suggest that for others it is more of a stumbling block. And a fairly big one: by my estimation something like 40% of every service is taken up with singing. That is a lot of time to have to endure being put on public display doing something at which you aren’t competent, comfortable or confident!

Being helpful

Let me re-iterate that I have nothing against singing. For many people “sung worship” is something they enjoy and is integral to their Christian life, and it has drawn others to the faith in the first place. So it is a good thing and I certainly don’t want to stop others participating – go for it! However, I suggest that both its unquestioned prominence and its current format could do with serious consideration. Here are a few ideas.

  • Make greater use of performance. Even people who don’t like singing themselves are generally happy to listen to someone musically-gifted singing at a good standard.
  • Make greater use of a wider variety of creative arts by the congregation. Music and singing is only one of the creative arts. What about the rest – traditional art, video-making, writing and so on? Why are these usually limited to kids, or reduced to low-standard, novelty items?

This post is long enough, so I will wind up here. One final thought – why do I care about this subject so much? Singing is not an issue alone, but part of a broader concern I have. I became a Christian as an adult, and see Christianity as a good thing that I would want to share. But I am single, male and mid-thirties. Most of the friends I make are in their twenties and thirties, they don’t have kids, and their interests are a long way from a church context. Which gives me a real difficulty: “church” is simply not somewhere I can bring people to, or in which they would truly thrive. And that really is a problem.

This is a big statement to make, and needs some justification. I hope to return to it soon in another post.

J


P.S. You may have read in another post that I’ve started internet dating. Given the general tenor of this article, it might surprise you to hear that one of the things I think would be quite nice is to find a partner I could sing with (!). As I’ve said several times, I have nothing against singing. But for me singing is a highly vulnerable activity – essentially intimate in nature. If I sing with you, its a mark of great trust and/or value.