The power of J John's anonymous fellowships

Thursday, 13 July 2017

In the summer of 2004, when I was 19 years old, I was just one of a crowd of young people who flocked to St Paul's Cathedral one evening to hear J John preach on the ten commandments. I was attending Soul in the City, a week-long initiative where thousands of young people of my generation descended on London to carry out community projects and evangelise. 

I'm not sure how significant it is that we had a choice, that evening, between going to see J John preach on the ten commandments and going to see Delirious? and that I chose the former, but I expect I was very diligent and wrote a lot of notes. It was a very hot week in August and one of the things I remember the most about that evening was the stickiness of the Tube afterwards. But I also remember feeling as if what I'd heard that evening was important.

This past weekend J John's been drawing crowds in London again, this time to his JustOne event, held at the Emirates Stadium. An estimated 23,000 people attended, not quite filling the stadium - as was the organisers' goal - but a perfectly respectable total for the UK's first evangelistic stadium event in three decades.

One particular quote from J John is being heavily featured in coverage of JustOne:

"Mass evangelism reminds the world that the Church is not dead. It’s easy to ignore a few little fellowships hidden away in anonymous buildings in a dozen suburbs. It’s much less easy if there are tens of thousands of people in your city’s main stadium."

It's a quote that many people are finding rather troubling. I'm not sure if that was his intention, but there it is. Enormous Christian rallies at stadiums featuring 'big name' speakers and high profile worship bands may not be everyone's cup of tea (including mine, these days) but they have a place. They do have an impact on people; they change people's lives. But while promoting the event and in the aftermath as the organisers celebrate its success, it's not exactly necessary to position huge events as a more glamorous, more important counterpart to what happens in churches and communities across the country every single day.

JustOne has partnered with scores of churches to link up people who responded in some way to the event last weekend. Initial reports suggested that there were 6,000 'responses' - 6,000 'lives changed' which is an interesting assumption to make as early as the point at which these people may have simply filled out some contact information on a postcard. The official number has now been confirmed as 1,743 - and these people will be put in touch with partner churches in London to hopefully continue their journey. 

These partner churches might be little fellowships in anonymous buildings in the suburbs. They might be slightly larger, flashier outfits. But what they'll all have in common is that every day, they'll be striving to make a difference to the lives of their members and those living in their communities. Reporting impressive numbers is nice and looks good in headlines but these numbers aren't much different to what I'd think of, if they related to something I was doing at work, as vanity metrics.

Without what happens next, these numbers mean very little. For those 1,743 people, what will come to matter just as much as the moment they 'made a decision' at JustOne is what will happen in countless small suburban fellowships and small groups and conversations in the years to come. It's likely that these will make or break their faith

For some Christian leaders and some churches, the headline statistics and hopes of national media coverage, the 'influence', the presence in major cities, the big name speakers and big events and big numbers seem to matter a great deal. The hype and the big pronouncements matter a great deal. It's hard to critique all this without coming across as thought you're mounting a bitter attack on the well-meaning actions of good people, I know, but when all this becomes the focus, we end up with a distorted, consumerist view of success and one that is fundamentally incompatible with the ups and downs of the Christian life. Hype will pass away. Media coverage will pass away. 'Influence' as a goal raises troubling questions.

One of things I've read recently that's stuck in my mind the most is this Church Times comment piece on Sean Bean's portrayal of an inner-city priest in Broken. I think it actually made me feel somewhat emotional, probably in part because I'm pregnant and also very much because increasingly, it described what I have needed and benefited from and sometimes found upsettingly lacking in church life in recent years.

In the piece, Mark Bryant describes being at a clergy gathering and hearing stories of faithful commitment to communities that results in unspectacular tales - helping the homeless, walking alongside parishioners struggling with depression - stories these clergy felt often go unheard at a time when the focus is on church growth.

At the weekend, mentions of JustOne were entirely absent from my social media feeds. That could be because people I know just weren't really its target audience (although one report estimates that 80 per cent of attendees were Christians). What were very much in evidence, however, were descriptions of the small church meetings and regular church events happening all over the country that weekend. 

I'm not gloating. As a new Christian, the first time I attended an event with 10,000 other churchgoers blew my mind and helped open up a whole new understanding of church. But I was brought up attending church weekly in a small congregation in a rural town (so small, we didn't even have a youth group, which explains why my mind was blown when I finally got to hang out with thousands of other Christians my age). And I made a deeper commitment to my faith after attending an Alpha Course attended by about ten people, run by another small rural church. And every time I read a wonderful story like that of Leanne and Darren Bell or see the coverage of the way local churches have played a key role in supporting people in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, I think of the anonymous buildings in a dozen suburbs that make these stories possible.


Jo Swinney said...

Such sane analysis. Thank you. You articulated the uneasy feeling I had in my gut about this event and its PR.

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