Anyone that has been involved in church leadership will undoubtedly have heard the phrase “but this is the way we have always done things”. However, in light of dwindling church numbers, many churches are seeking to make traditional services more appealing. Will the future of the church be found by increasing the role of personal experiences?
It is said that the three sources of theology are: scripture, reason, and tradition. Sometimes experience is included, and this is known as the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’1. Macquarrie says that although not dominant, experience should be viewed as preceding theology2; in other words, it all starts with experience.
It is well reported that church attendance is decreasing3. Twinned with a lack of young people4, it would appear that church isn't cutting it for many. Curiously, pilgrimages, potentially highly spiritual experiences, are rising in popularity simultaneously5,6. Although they fell into disfavour during the reformation, there is a historic tradition of pilgrimage within Christianity. I find it interesting that less people are choosing to experience God in a traditional corporate church environment, whilst more are seeking counter-cultural personal experiences. Does declining church attendance reflect a secularisation of society, or simply a cry for a different way of experiencing God?
There is concern about placing too great an importance on experience as “[theologies with an exaggerated emphasis on experience] can easily become distorted by the particular types of experience out of which they come”2. It is therefore important that the context of the theology is taken into account. For this reason, a branch of theology known as contextual theology has been developed. It has become especially popular among oppressed groups, such as ethnic minorities and women.
Schleiermacher noted that “[Christian doctrines] always proceed from a reflection on how the experience of one’s self-consciousness has been changed through being in relation to the redeemer”7. Doctrine is shaped by a transforming experience. We can see that the Bible is a collection of individuals having encounters of the divine, and people today can have revelations of God through reading it. However, the very act of reading the Bible has in itself become a tradition. Essentially, experiences and tradition are each important, but are undeniably inseparable.
It becomes clear that instead of simply challenging tradition, modern culture seems to be seeking the experiential as a new way of meeting with God. Increasing the role of the experiential in church could increase attendance of previously under-represented groups such as men and young people. I think the real danger is that Christians start viewing experience as the end to be desired, rather than the means by which to have an encounter with God. For this reason we must remember not to simply seek an experience, but to seek the experience of God.
1 Astley, 23
2 Macquarrie, 5
5 Alliance of Religions and Conservation
7 Mariña, 152
Alliance of Religions and Conservation, ‘Pilgrim Numbers’, Arcworld, <http://www.arcworld.org/projects.asp?projectID=500> [accessed 26 October 2012]
Astley, J., SCM Studyguide: Christian Doctrine, SCM Press, 2010.
Macquarrie, J., Princeiples of Christian Theology, SCM Press, 2003.
Mariña, J., (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Freiedrich Schleiermacher. Cambridge University Press. 2005.
Oborne, P., ‘The return to religion’, The Telegraph, 2012. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8970031/The-return-to-religion.html> [accessed 26 October 2012]
Shah, S., ‘Number of foreign Hajis grows by 2,824 percent in 92 years’, The News International, <http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-2-139473-Number-of-foreign-Hajis-grows-by-2824-percent-in-92-years> [accessed 26 October 2012]
Whychurch, ‘Why so many elderly in Church?’, Whychurch, <http://www.whychurch.org.uk/age.php > [accessed 26 October 2012]