This week’s guest blogger is Rev Dr Martin Robinson, Principal of Springdale College: Together in Mission.  This article first appeared on in September 2010.

Tom Wright, the recently-retired Bishop of Durham and leading New Testament scholar, marked his retirement bygiving a significant interview to the BBC in which he reflected on the situation of the Church of England.  During that wide ranging interview he picked on the theme that we are not becoming more secular, in fact if anything we are becoming more religious.

What he described applies to Europe more widely.  In a world of ‘posts’ – post-empire, post-modern, and post-Christian – we can now add post-secular.  A number of European commentators have picked up on this theme.  Europe is increasingly post-secular.

How do we make sense of such a situation?  How can we have lost touch with the founding roots of Europe and become post-Christian and yet now be rejecting the root of that criticism, secularism itself?

The clue lies in the contrast between being ‘religious people’ and ‘spiritual people’.  The people of Europe don’t think of themselves as ‘religious’, by which they mean to identify with a particular religious organization or institution but they can think of themselves as ‘spiritual’ by which they mean interested in God, in prayer, in a sense of wonder and mystery about life.

The root of this rejection of religion lies partly in the ancient European worry about religion as embodying conflict combined with a more recent rejection of institutions of all kinds  – whether they be political, social, or even educational.  We are now radically individualistic with all the angst that such a choice produces.  More worryingly there is also a gradual severing of the relationship between the idea of spirituality and the idea of morality.  You can be a ‘spiritual’ person without having to think too deeply about a particular moral code beyond the requirement to do no harm.

The depth of this shift of sentiment helps to illustrate the painful lesson that the church has learnt these last 20 years: the answer to the question of the decline of the church does not lie in a particular programme or model of the church.   Instead we have to learn how to do mission – in our cultural context – deeply contextualized and profoundly local.

In a recent interview with a church leader in Wales, I learnt that most of the historic churches in Wales are still declining but that a few  congregations in their midst were seeing good growth.  One or two of the smaller historic denominations are beginning to turn the corner and that some of the newer and independent churches are seeing remarkable growth.  The single factor that connects these very different expressions of church is the willingness to connect with and to serve at a deep level the communities in which they are located.

One of my students who is exploring the growth of some ‘traditional’ congregations in Scotland is making the same kind of discoveries in that very different context.  The exploration of this kind of mission is precisely what as a network of practitioners and thinkers is committed to locate and debate.

Martin Robinson

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