GATHER THOU THY PEOPLE IN
"Gathered churches" seem to be out of fashion these days. Gathered churches mushroomed in the wake of the Reformation, providing people whose religion did not conform to that of the prevailing "national church" with a ministry that accorded with their particular beliefs or preferences in worship. They were associated with a theology which asserted that not everyone in a particular country or area was a member of God's people, but only those who had responded in faith to the preaching of the gospel. Gathered churches "gathered steam" (as it were) in the following centuries, even in milieux which did not accept the theological tenet which had given rise to their existence. In the nineteenth century, one not only saw the growth of great Nonconformist preaching houses, but also of Anglican evangelical and anglo-Catholic "party" churches. These latter were technically integrated into a parish system, and were supposedly no more than the local manifestation of the Established church, ministering to the whole community. In effect, however, they drew their congregations from far and wide, attracting people who preferred the particular kind of doctrine, churchmanship, or worship they had to offer. They may indeed have performed a service to the community, and may well have sometimes attracted considerable community support. The Tractarians especially undertook work in areas not well served by Church or State, and gained much respect by doing so. But their congregations were mostly drawn from an area much wider than their notional parish, and the main purpose of these party churches was to provide spiritual support to those who valued a particular churchmanship and to promote the cause of that churchmanship. These aims are little different from those of the early Anabaptists.
But it is not only in the Protestant churches that this process has been at work. The Catholic church in Britain declined so greatly in numbers after the Reformation that for two centuries or so it was doing no more than ministering to the Catholic faithful. Thus it was operating, to all intents and purposes, as a gathered church. And even after the potato famine caused so many Irish people to emigrate to mainland Britain and swell the ranks of the Catholic Church here, the Church prudently only built as many buildings as it needed to cater for the faithful. Even today, Catholic parishes are far larger than those of the Church of England or the Church of Scotland. In practice, Catholic priests see themselves as ministering mainly to the Catholics or lapsed Catholics in their parish area, not to the whole parish. This exhibits a de facto "gathered church" mentality, as opposed to the parish ideal.
The history of the twentieth century is littered with the formation of new churches - Pentecostal, Free Evangelical, Charismatic New Churches (formerly called "house churches"). We have even seen the growth of church clusters - such as the Holy Trinity, Brompton and the Kensington Temple "families of churches". Many of these churches are of the "gathered church" type - in practice, if not in theory. But the "gathered church" concept is out of fashion. Why?
1. The Idea of Community
Firstly, because the "gathered church" is seen as a concept associated with individualism, and individualism is out of fashion. The Second World War engendered a "community spirit" in British society which made people "pull together" and inspired a dream of building a better society for everyone. This was then gradually eroded by the growing affluence of following decades, until in the Eighties a society emerged which was termed the "me" society. A Prime Minister once said "There's no such thing as society", and though she claims, probably with justification, that she was misinterpreted, the phrase caught on, and seemed to many to symbolise the spirit of the age. It seemed people's only goal was personal advancement and the advancement of their family. Their leisure time was spent on their own, with their family, or with chosen friends, in activities which required little if any long term commitment, and certainly they felt no responsibility to anyone outside their family and friends, except perhaps to give to charity, so someone else could look after the needy. This gave rise to an increase in the incidence of depression and other mental health problems. There was a rise in demand for counselling services, as people who had been forced to move far from their roots to find work in the "market economy" found they had no-one to turn to when things went wrong.
The problem was diagnosed as a lack of "community", and the churches set about the task of "creating community" to meet these needs. To be honest, the church (led as it was by people whose ideas were formed in the immediate aftermath of World War 2) never felt happy with the extreme individualism of the Eighties. And this leadership found support in younger members whose ideas were formed in the "hippy generation" of the seventies. Charismatics and radical Christians had experimented with "community living" in the seventies and "community" had long been part of the Catholic tradition. Add to all this an increasing interest in "New Age" religion and Celtic roots in society at large, and the scene was set for all the major wings of the church to combine (with the help of a slightly overly romantic view of Church History) under the banner of "Celtic Christianity" to promote the church as the body that restores the ideal of "community" to our society.
Unfortunately, the "gathered church" seemed too much of a piece with Eighties individualism and unsuited to the new "communitarian" vision (which had by now become the political "flavour of the month" as well). It seemed to speak of a church where people could choose their own style of religion from the supermarket shelf (as it were), and attach themselves to a church which provided them with what they desired, instead of going the pilgrim way with the rest of the family and the rest of the community, giving and taking, and living with the tensions and the contradictions. It seemed to speak of a closed community of like-minded people rather than an outgoing, welcoming community. Hence even churches which have been archetypes of the gathered church, such as Baptist Churches and Charismatic churches have been quick to try to establish "community credentials", by opening up youth work on surrounding estates or by relocating to an area which was nor previously well served by church buildings. This concern perhaps lies behind the current trend for New Churches to rebrand themsleves as "Community Churches". However, while they may have an active concern for the community around, and may themselves be loving Christian commnunities, it is questionable whether these churches have really changed model.
Actually these churches remain "gathered churches". Their congregations are drawn from a wide area and are held together by a common churchmanship, or style of worship, or doctrine, rather than by common roots in a community. And such evidence as exists (for instance, in John Finney's report, Finding Faith Today1 and in testimonies included in material for the Alpha course) suggests that these and all churches grow through the networks of friends and family of people already associated with the church, rather than through their community work. This means if a church's base in the community is currently small, it is not likely to get much larger. If most of a church's current members come from outside the area in which the church is situated, most of any new members will come from outside that area.
There is, however, a still more bitter pill to swallow for churches which are committed to a particular doctrinal stance, or to a particular form of worship or churchmanship. If they were to achieve their aim of becoming a truly community church, they would necessarily lose their distinctiveness and "purity". Most of the mainline churches against which they reacted in the long ago, started out as "God's new people" set to reform the Church and the World. But they became "community churches" of a sort, and lost their distinctiveness and their zeal. They now struggle to survive.
2. Ecumenical Concerns
The second major reason why the "gathered church" concept is currently unpopular is due to the development of closer ecumenical links between the churches. I have no desire to hinder the development of these links. Indeed I believe greater ecumenical co-operation is a goal to which the Church must strive with all its best endeavours. But unfortunately, the Church seems to be in a similar state to a young man who has got over the initial embarrassment of asking the young lady to go out with him, but does not yet know her well enough to be comfortable in her presence. He is perhaps overly polite, overly solicitous, and over careful to avoid doing anything that will displease. So much so, in fact that he inadvertently does something that annoys his young lady immensely. Often in ecumenical gatherings one gets the impression that those present are so concerned to be on their best behaviour they do or say nothing worth while in case it offends.
"Gathered churches" are a case in point. Only a minority of Christians belong to churches which have traditionally held to this concept. The received ecumenical wisdom suggests that unity will not be possible without a common view of what the church is. And as most Christians believe in the parish, community, or neighbourhood model of the church, it is assumed that it is that model which will be adopted by any united church. Thus the advocacy of any other model of "being church" is seen as a most unecumenical act. Thus ecumenical enthusiasts in denominations which have historically worked on a "gathered church" model have sought to wean their people away from the idea.
Gathered churches create a particular problem for "parish-based" churches, such as Anglicans, Catholics, and the Church of Scotland. These churches see themselves as being "the church" in the area, serving the community in the name of Christ. Having other churches around in the same community, whose members are drawn from a wider area is at best an anomaly from the point of view of a parish church. At worst it is a threat. Either because it is seen as direct competition, or as a focus for dissident members of the parish church. While we are prepared to continue to exist side by side as different denominations, such churches can be tolerated as providing for a distinct group in the parish (e.g. The Methodists, the Baptists, the charismatics, or the Pentecostals). As the churches draw closer in ecumenical dialogue, however, the need for such provision would appear to be less urgent. When our churches become one, why will we need all these other buildings? The Church of Scotland answered this question by subdividing its parishes. Methodism faced a similar problem in teh 1960's & 70's by mounting a thoroughgoing rationalisation programme. What will the coming united church do? Some of the smaller groupings may well remain outside an ecumenical agreement. They will presumably continue as at present. But they will be more exposed if they remain outside when more mainline churches have united. Being a "gathered church" will then appear to be a very unecumenical position indeed.
But are gathered churches such a problem for ecumenical development? Only, I would suggest, if we allow them to be. The problem described above has its roots in concerns about power and success. Power politics and ambition play rather more of a part in the life of the church than many of its members would like to admit. If we were more "comfortable in each other's presence", we would admit that there is a constant flow of members between our churches, and rarely is it all in one direction. No minister can expect to please everyone in his church, and no church can please all of its members. There will always be transfers in and out. Perhaps we should take some comfort from the suggestion in Philip Richter's report, Gone but not forgotten2 that many of those who leave do so for personal reasons due to their moving to a new stage in their lives. Sometimes such people may need a reason to justify their action (to themselves as much as to others), and may blame the minister or someone else in the church, but they would have left anyway, at some time. Some of these people may join other "gathered churches" nearby. If so, that is part of their spiritual pilgrimage. Our modern society lays much less store by tradition and group loyalty than did the society of a few decades ago. In church terms, this means people are much less likely to stick with one church, even one denomination, for their whole life. A person may be brought up Methodist, leave Sunday School because "it's boring", become converted and join a Charismatic New (or House) Church. They may then find the doctrine too restricting and the worship too shallow and join the Church of England. While there they begin to acquire an appreciation of the sacraments, and complete their spiritual pilgrimage by being received into the Church of Rome. Or another may be born Roman Catholic, and find it too guilt-ridden and formal. So they leave and spend some time outside the church's life. Then they undergo an evangelical conversion and join a Pentecostal Church, but find that doesn't suit them long-term and end their days a Methodist. Perm any combination from about 2000. I believe the church is in for a round of ecclesiastical musical chairs. In the end, where people finish up and how they get there is not too relevant, as long as they come closer to God in obedience and commitment.
Thus gathered churches should not be too much of a problem to ecumenical co-operation, as long as there is no systematic attempt to poach members from another church, and as long as each minister is secure enough to see the transfers in and out as a normal part of life in the Church, and not as a sign of failure in his/her ministry. I have assumed so far that the numbers transferring in and out of the church are not too large. This is usually the case. If unusually large numbers transfer into one church, then as long as there is no deliberate poaching of members, it should be accepted gracefully. If unusually large numbers leave, the church they have left must ask itself questions. But they may conclude after doing so that they could have done nothing other than they did. Reconciliation needs determination on all sides, and if people are intent on leaving no-one can stop them. Sometimes a person or a group within a church has needs which conflict with those of the majority. One cannot back the minority against the majority. That is the quickest way to closure, and ends up helping no-one. One seeks reconciliation, but if it is impossible, one has to seek to meet the needs of the majority, and one has to accept that some people may find their spiritual home elsewhere. In such circumstances gathered churches provide a vital function, picking up the pieces and achieving what the community church could not. Gathered churches and community churches have different, but equally essential functions. Community churches (or parish churches) serve communities (or parishes). Gathered churches serve interest groups and networks. There is room for both.
3. Mission Concerns
Thirdly, consideration of how the church is to reach out in mission have led some to despair of the future viability of gathered churches. The received wisdom is that the church must first bring people (in Sangster's phrase) from the pavement to the porch, and then from the porch into the pew. The further assumption is that the way to draw people into the "porch" is through community-related activity. This may be anything from a children's club or uniformed organisation, to Senior Citizen's clubs, to drop-in centres for the unemployed. There is little evidence in John Finney's report Finding Faith Today that these activities are significantly effective in leading people to faith. Indeed, such testimonies as are quoted in that report suggest the church activities which are most effective in this regard are Church services. There is a certain amount of experience and anecdotal evidence that parents of young children are attracted to churches that provide children's activities (though these appear to be more effective in winning the parents than the children) and that Senior Citizen's clubs can attract older, people who feel the need of a community where they can belong. But in these days of motorised transport there is little evidence that the provision has to be on the doorstep - in the urban situation at least. John Finney's report suggests that by far the most crucial factor in people's coming to faith is the influence of Christian friends. Perhaps there has been an assumption that these friends live nearby. But in our highly mobile age, that is an unwarranted assumption. Friends may be people we meet at work, or at social activities, and may live at the other side of town. And if a person is led to faith by a friend, it is likely to be that friend's church they begin attending. Thus gathered churches are as likely to grow as community-based churches. Indeed, perhaps some gathered churches have an advantage. John Finney suggests that the highest proportion of those who are brought to faith by a friend are to be found in the New (Charismatic) churches. These churches have a high proportion of younger working people in their congregations, as well as a strong emphasis on lay witness. These people regularly meet people who have no religious affiliation and who may be seeking. These people may also have cars, and are therefore able to travel to a church which provides them with what they need. Older people may well know no-one who does not profess religious faith, and their networks may be more restricted.
The scepticism about the mission of gathered congregations is probably rooted in the search for "community" we discussed earlier, and it may perhaps be this search for "community" that hinders some people from seeing how gathered churches can engage in mission. They do so by working through networks of friends and family, rather than through links to the local community. They can attract members by advertising and personal recommendation, and if they have some success, by reputation. The downside of this kind of mission is that gathered churches can drain the local community of its most gifted laity, and thus contribute to the impoverishment of the community-based churches. Mature Christian people need to hear teaching about the responsibility of all Christians to the whole body of Christ, and the need to serve Christ in the Church and in the world as well as to attend to their own spiritual needs. But some people will always need a particular style of worship, or a particular kind of teaching, or a particular ethos at a certain point in their spiritual journey, and both gathered churches and community-based churches have a part to play in the total work of Christ. But the gathered churches do need to know when to encourage their members to move out of the stage of spiritual babyhood, and into the sphere of service - even if that service should be in another church.
4. New Testament practice
We have examined the concept of the gathered church, and some current objections to it. But what light can the New Testament shed on the subject? What model of being church can we discern from its writings? Here we must exercise caution. Many of the Church's current divisions were caused by differing answers to this question. And in most cases, contemporary issues and models were read back into the New Testament with little or no justification. It must also be acknowledged that the New Testament does not provide a blueprint for the life of the church, and that the way the Church was organised in New Testament times is not necessarily the way God wished things to be forever. But it surely must be recognised that in a time when the Christian church was a very small minority, and often a persecuted minority, a parish-type ministry would have been almost impossible. Although the phrase "gathered church" is a Reformation slogan, the Greek word ekklesia means "called out", and its use to describe the Christian community suggests a notion that God's people had been gathered out of every race, nation, and language, and made into a people in Christ. The New Testament letters appear to assume only one church in each place, even in large cities. It was only as the Church grew, and especially as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, that parish ministry evolved. But the time when most churches were "gathered churches" appears to be the time when the church grew most spectacularly. And it is largely gathered churches (whether or not they choose so to designate themselves) which grow most significantly today. I am not decrying parish or community-based ministry. It has a vital part to play in isolated rural communities and in neglected inner-city areas. But the gathered church stands in an honourable Christian tradition, and this model of the church should not be rejected out of hand - if only because its tendency to work through friendship networks and its ability to provide people with just what they need at a particular time may be just what is needed to connect with many in today's generation. Gathered churches can provide community within themselves, and maybe deep-wounded souls need that kind of therapeutic community before they venture forth to serve God in another place where the opportunities to serve may be more abundant.
So then, have "gathered churches" a future? I believe they have. Their presence may not be welcome to some. Their presence will cause problems and tensions. But they are a fact of life, and if they did not exist, someone would invent them. The question is not whether there will be gathered churches in the future, but whether they will exist inside or outside any future ecumenical structures or agreements. I hope a place will be found for at least those gathered churches who are willing to co-operate on an ecumenical basis (there will always be some who will not), and that the church will find a way of coping with the tensions and resolving them in a way that is positive for all involved.
1. J. Finney, Finding Faith Today, BFBS 1992
2. Philip Richter and Leslie J. Francis, Gone but not forgotten: Church leaving and Returning in the 21st. Century, Darton, Longman and Todd 1997