By David Goodhew
Stanford anthropology professor Tanya Luhrmann made this remarkable comment in When God Talks Back:
What one might call an avalanche of medical data has demonstrated that, for reasons still poorly understood, those who attend church and believe in God are healthier and happier and live longer than those who do not.
If you want to learn about the medical data of which Luhrmann speaks, I recommend the report Religion and Well Being by the thinktank Theos.
This point was vividly illustrated recently to me when I was part of a large-scale research project on London’s churches, called Desecularisation of the City: We knew London’s churches were growing. What I hadn’t quite grasped was the way people who join London’s churches consistently report measurable improvements in their lives.
This was summed up by “Jenny,” one of those interviewed by Anna Strhan in her excellent study of a single London congregation.
Jenny said that St John’s made life in London ‘bearable’, both through the friendships it enabled and the teaching she received there in sermons and small groups as ‘inspiring’ her and supporting her faith. (Anna Strhan, Aliens and Strangers: the Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals [OUP, 2015], p. 105)
“Jenny” and “St Johns” have had their names changed for obvious reasons, but they are as real as the table on which my computer rests as I write this article. Jenny’s experience chimes with that of a wide range of Londoners. She finds that there is something “unbearable” about the late modern city and that going to church helps — a lot.
Desecularisation of the City found that experience repeated among many varied groups: from Brazilians who lean on their pastors to help them survive the city to poor Russian migrants starved of the language of home to thrusting middle-class millennials stressed out by the city; from the poorest to those who seem to have it all. Now it doesn’t always work. There are cranks, crooks, and worse in London’s churches. But those behaviours exist in all large institutions. And one should not write off everything because of the behaviours of a few.
In an age when faith, including church membership, is the subject of no little disdain, Luhrmann’s comment deserves more notice than it attracts. It helps explain why London’s congregations are expanding, not expiring. Luhrmann’s comment also asks questions of our theology.
Many Anglicans rightly attack the prosperity gospel. The name it and claim it school has little to do with the actual gospel. But let’s also look at the log in our own eyes.
It can be fairly noted that much Anglican theology has a kind of poverty gospel, in which faith is primarily about blood, sweat, toil, and tears. The poverty gospel goes on about the oughts that we should do, the demands our faith will make of us. It rarely speaks of the good things about believing in Jesus and being part of his Church.
This forgets that in the early centuries, the Christian Church had a deep sense of the blessing that comes from following Jesus. Reading texts from the New Testament and the early centuries of the Church, I am struck by the confidence and good cheer found in them. They had a lot of troubles. But they do not read as “troubled.”
And this is in striking contrast to the thought of many Greco-Roman sophisticates with whom they lived. The latter’s preferred strapline was often something like “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Whatever the accuracy of that statement, it is hardly cheery.
Christianity is about taking up your cross. And anyone with five minutes’ experience of trying to live the Faith knows that. But it also about experiencing blessing in Christ, both now and in the world to come. I emphatically do not subscribe to the prosperity gospel as it is often promoted. But I do think Anglicans can learn from it.
The advocates of the prosperity gospel have got much wrong, but they do offer a kind of hope. And, writing in Easter season, I think Anglicans should be less scared of reminding people that Christian faith offers hope and that when you join a church you will know God’s blessing. Going to church and following Jesus does us good.
Following Jesus means hope in the face of mortality. It means knowing we matter to God in a world in which we can feel utterly insignificant. It means that when we foul up (and when others foul up), that is not the last word. It means knowing there is a redeemer.
Put like that, Christian faith is good news. Recognising the blessings of following Jesus will give us fresh hearts as individual believers. It will also empower us for ministry and mission. If following Jesus brings blessing, both in the life to come and the here and now, then leading churches and starting new churches is a good work, always worth doing. Those of us who are ordained need to remember that — and are sometimes guilty of forgetting it.
I am about to return to parish ministry in the northern English town of Middlesbrough. This is after a decade teaching at Cranmer Hall, the Anglican theological college in Durham.
I know a lot of challenges lie ahead. I also know that, without the strength God supplies, I am pitifully weak before them. But I also know that the gospel is good and it does people good when they lay hold of it. Knowing that is spiritual octane that will fuel fruitful ministry, whatever is to come in the years ahead.