6 March, 2014 Mike Tindall
The 2011 census threw up some interesting statistics. Manchester, where I work, experienced a 19% population growth over the previous decade, the biggest percentage growth outside London. The city was also described as “the capital of single people with no religious faith”. The number of people in Manchester saying they do not believe in any religion has nearly doubled in the last ten years, from 11% to 21%. But compare this with the percentage of the population of England and Wales as a whole who reported no religion: an increase to 25.1%.
This is a significant trend over a mere ten years. How should it affect Christian ministry? Public debates about atheist perspectives on religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have gained widespread attention recently. But what does the local atheist think? What do 25% of our friends, neighbours and colleagues actually perceive about Christians, and the message of Jesus? These questions are growing in importance for those seeking to share the Christian Gospel in the UK.
Tabatha Leggett is a London-based freelance journalist and Cambridge philosophy graduate. In June 2013 she published an article in New Statesman entitled “Inside Alpha: An atheist’s foray into Christianity.” It is a compelling and honest description of her experience of attending an Alpha course. I think it is a must-read for Christian leaders, church planters, and those involved in evangelism.
Tabatha describes herself as someone who has never prayed and who thinks that most religious beliefs are “kind of stupid”. She suspected that organised religion is “a horrible thing” but was willing to be proved wrong. By the end of the course, she was exhausted and relieved that it was over, but she felt she understood Christianity’s appeal: it offered a chance for uncritical people to make new friends. What happened?
Some of the things she encountered may be connected to the Alpha course itself, but I am not offering an assessment of Alpha per se. I’m interested in Tabatha’s experience. Here are three thoughts that the article prompted.
1. The Need for Authentic Enquiry
Tabatha felt that Christians didn’t ask good questions, ducked hard questions and were bored with her questions. The course made no attempt to prove the existence of God, address the problem of evil and the existence of suffering. Leaders assumed the existence of Jesus and the authority of the Bible as givens. Christians on the course seemed more interested in sharing personal stories and religious experiences than in critical engagement. She concluded: “this institution encourages blind faith at the expense of scientific enquiry”.
What would a sincere atheist make of our engagement with their beliefs?
2. The Need for Authentic Community
In week five of the course, Tabatha discovered that everyone else on the course was already a Christian! What was going on? Some Christians wanted to explore their faith further, someone was being trained to lead a course, and there was a course repeater who had found Alpha helpful in the past. Only one person was a non-believing enquirer. I don’t wish to criticise the church in question—this sort of thing sometimes happens, and has happened in our church! However, the interesting thing about Tabatha’s course was that it functioned as a community experience for the Christians present. They prayed together, shared intimate stories and wept over a miscarriage. At the end of the course, the Christians had bonded, but the Gospel had been obscured. Such bonding was, in some respects, inappropriate in the context of the course, as it made Tabatha feel awkward and upset. Her article demonstrates that Christians are crying out for authentic community; for a deep experience of fellowship that enables them to share life and share Jesus. We need this; it is a necessary corollary of our new identity as a family in Jesus. But one evangelical pastor I know privately confessed: “our home groups are awful; I don’t even like going to mine”.
What is the quality of our church’s community from Monday to Saturday?
3. The Need for the Authentic Gospel
The word “Gospel” comes from the Greek “evangel”. It means good news—a report of facts that have happened. In the world of the New Testament, “evangel” was often a report of major events, such as the birth or accession of an emperor, or a military victory. The opening sentence of the book of Mark describes it as “the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. Therefore, evangel-ism is authentic when the news report of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ is explained, with its theological import. Tabatha was frustrated by elements of the course that were essentially an exploration of the Christian life, such as how to pray, or conversation about prayers being answered. As I understand it, this is consistent with Alpha’s original purpose, which was spiritual formation of Christians. The fact that Alpha has been used for many people to connect with Christianity is a great providence. But evangelism is a presentation of the Gospel news and its implications, not the spiritual experiences and stories of Christians.
How clear and intelligible is our presentation of the Gospel?