Rev Suzanne Cooke starts to explore why younger people love shopping centres like Norwich’s Chapelfield but are much more reticent to enter churches in Norfolk.
I have a weakness - a love of shopping! In fact I'm writing this sitting in Chapelfield Shopping Mall having my lunch – it’s my day off. For good or bad I take great pleasure in just meandering around Norwich City Centre, wandering into Jarrolds with time to try on perfumes and look at the latest fashions.
Maybe it isn't a good thing to take pleasure in these great cathedrals of the consumer age. But then I look around me, I look at all the people also enjoying a day out in the city - mums pushing prams, young men on their lunch breaks. Lots of young people - in fact few people over 30 and many under 20. It has to be said, in fact, the very people who are NOT presently in very many of our churches.
In my job we spend a lot of time talking about why, in our society, so few people (especially younger people) walk through the doors of a church to participate in an act of worship. And we have tried many ways to ask them ever so nicely (and sometimes not so nicely) to come inside and join us. And fairly consistently they say thanks, but no thanks. So, as I spend my day in the city, what clues might these surroundings, that are so loved by the young, give us as to why Church is so unappealing?
It seems to me that the make-up of a shopping centre like Chalpelfield is about enticing the potential customer over the threshold. They make that process so easy that actually it’s often difficult to know where the outside ends and shop begins.
Churches are different though aren't they? In fact the opposite is generally true of how we enter our worship spaces; we often make crossing the threshold into a ritual in and of itself. There are maybe a series of doors to negotiate, porches to pass through, isles to process down, altars to revere etc etc. Opinions differ of course, but many of us relish the ritual of gradually removing ourselves from "normal" life and preparing to worship God by making a mini pilgrimage of approach.
So what's my point? Along with shopping, I also love the ancient liturgy and traditions of the Church of England. Over the years it has become for me both a foundation on which to build and a sanctuary in which to rest - however I also enjoy modern culture. For good or bad I love being in Chapelfield and temporarily being part of the great consumer experience. It might appear that the two are utterly unconnected, but is it indeed the case that our ancient rites are utterly at odds with modern society? Many would believe so. Not surprisingly, I don't!
There are very many differences between church "culture" and the "culture" of modern society. But I want to say that Jesus' ministry didn't involve him installing himself in the Temple and only engaging with those who gathered there. We know he went to the Temple, but it was only part of his story. He was thoroughly immersed in his own religious tradition but he also engaged effectively with the culture of his time. It wasn't an either/or situation for Jesus, he operated in both spheres. He stood amongst the religious people of his time and challenged them - he then went out into the world and challenged them as well.
So, why engage fully with modern culture? Because that was what Jesus did to come alongside the people of his time. Where might you do the same?
Rev Suzanne Cooke is the curate of St Mary’s Church, Watton and the founder of Soul Circus, a regular creative, experimental service supported by the Diocese of Norwich and the Youth Task Force. You can find out more at www.soulcircus.org.uk.
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