Tomlinson re-enchants church without borders
2011: Nothing less than the future of the church was the topic of radical Rev Dave Tomlinson’s Re-enchanting Christianity conference, which drew around 50 Norfolk churchgoers to St. Luke’s, Norwich. Mark Sims reports.
The crux of the event, on Saturday July 16, named after Dave Tomlinson’s 2008 book of the same name, was that there are many people, Christians and otherwise, who have become and remain “disenchanted” with Christianity and the church, hovering on its fringes or staying away altogether. Tomlinson stated that there is an ongoing spiritual surge in popular culture, a hunger for spirituality.
“The future of 21st century churches hinges on their ability to engage with and cater to this spiritual hunger,” stated Tomlinson, the vicar of St. Luke’s, Holloway, North London. “Churches that fail to engage with heart as well as head,” he stated, “and to help people find meaning in their lives, are unsustainable in the future.
“Jesus wanted kingdom come,” said the Reverend, “What he got was the church.”
The title of Tomlinson’s 1995 volume, ‘The Post-Evangelical’, described someone who, like himself, had grown frustrated with the workings of a church tradition he now regards as a “subculture of which I am no longer a part of”. Although, he admitted that he would not be where he is today were it not for his previous evangelical experiences. For example, baptism in the Holy Spirit is an event he would not now, “think about in that framework,” perhaps referring to his progression from an evangelical to an Anglican way of seeing.
With regard to the disenchantment and possible pain caused by people’s past church experiences, Tomlinson quoted the film ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ - “Don’t let the past dictate who you are, but let it be part of who you’ll become,” h said.
He called our current times “The Age of the Spirit”, in which the Holy Spirit is very important in retaining the numinous, the non-rational, in church, citing the Catholic Mass as an example. Many people who have rejected the established church and the certainty of fundamentalism still yearn for the mysterious, he added.
Creating a dialogue with spirituality in popular culture is crucial to engaging with disenchanted people, Tomlinson contended. There is no, “monopoly on enlightenment”, where the church must seek to dominate the metaphysical marketplace and “religion and spirituality are no longer presumed bedfellows”, indeed, “religion-less spirituality is now more commonplace,” he said.
To him, many churches’ approach to evangelism is exemplified through Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s
idea of an “I-It” approach, where the evangelist(s) attempts to convert a labelled person or group, such as non-Christians, Muslims, gay people, etc, which is more about conversion than equal conversation.
The Alpha course, which he noted for highlighting a need for people to understand faith, was “too prescriptive” for Tomlinson, whose ‘Living The Question’ course allows people’s questions to shape its structure, rather than follow a prescribed topic each week. Dave favoured Buber’s more person-centred “I-Thou” dialogue; where the relationship is equal, allowing for God (“The Eternal Thou”) to enter “the space between” the two parties, where both are changed. What is required is a “big shift away from apologetics to meeting people on their (spiritual) journeys,” not asking “is there a God?” but “who is God?” The more open approach favoured by Tomlinson is similar to that of the Developing Consciousness course run by the Norwich Christian Meditation Centre.
Tomlinson warned of the perceived danger of enforcing a set of beliefs on people, something he believed Christ himself never did and so nor should we. His own church welcomes people with a “variety of doctrinal beliefs”, as opposed to presenting potentially exclusive dogma. When questioned on whether that runs the risk of losing clarity of purpose and ‘unity of mind and thought’ in the church as Paul wrote of in 1 Corinthians 1:10, Dave responded with, “Paul (says) we’re a body of many different parts and functions (Romans 12:4-8)... Diversity is much more expressive of the spirit of Christ than uniformity.”
“Church without borders” is the future, where the words “Church” and ”Christian” become verbs as well as nouns and Jesus’ followers are “churching it” in their communities, rather than focusing on drawing people in to convert them. For Dave, it is all about, “Creating open, empowering, spirited communities... Centres of existential spirituality” where people of all faiths and none join to celebrate a communal experience. This was demonstrated by a Faithless music video, ‘God Is A DJ’, featuring a live performance with a dancing crowd of hundreds.
The idea that Christianity must be reinvented in some way in order to retain cultural relevance is not new, particularly among proponents of the so-called “Emergent Church” as Dave referred to it. Nevertheless, Tomlinson clearly communicated his message (which is no doubt new to many) in a stimulating and enjoyable manner through many in-depth ideas that were new to me (although the well-placed refreshment breaks provided welcome respite for folks’ bums and brains).
The carefully selected video clips were also a highlight and something we don’t see enough of in church talks. The Reverend's encouragement to question, disagree with and even heckle him was also endearing, as was his willingness to take questions (of which there were many) after each of the four sessions.
The very word “enchanting” conjures (if you will) the uncomfortable image of bewitching people into believing but it also means captivating, delighting, charming or enraptured. How many churches can say that Christianity, as they practice it, reflects these qualities?