Mission to and with the ‘Spiritual Not Religious’ a dialogical approach

Whether we like it or not national social surveys appear to indicate that many of the ‘non-and-de-churched’ people now call themselves “spiritual” but not religious (SNR). About a fifth of people in the UK fit into this category, according to Prof Michael King from University College London.[1]

The challenge then is how to respond to these missional needs in culturally appropriate ways, a matter I am researching as part of a PhD research study.  As part of this, and also to develop mission to the ‘Spiritual Not Religious’ we have been piloting a dialogical approach which we have called ‘SearchingSoul’ and used the popular MeetUp App to promote 4 groups in various parts of London.[2]

These groups are designed as generous spaces to allow people to explore spirituality on a monthly theme, where everyone has space to talk about their insights and experience, as many spiritual seekers like the opportunity to explore and engage with the issue of spirituality.  We are careful to ensure that there are no Christians present other than the facilitators, to ensure that the event gives space for the SNR to really open up and build trust.  Typically SNR people begin with a negative stereotype that religion and in particular Christianity is a form of fundamentalism and thought control.   We have been running the groups now for over a year, and in time people break down these negative stereotypes, and as we know from the Fresh Expressions initiative, all mission must be deeply relational and begins with building up relationships of integrity.  We now have groups in Peckham, Borough, Kingston and the City that meet in pubs and bars and we are looking to set up new groups in the Diocese.  So far a few have gone on to explore Christianity – taking a particularly contemplative spiritual practices approach to exploring the faith.

This whole approach is about mission being Gods, and for us getting out of the way of God and seeking to catch up with what God is doing, in the belief that the Holy Spirit is constantly unsettling every person to the reality of God the Trinity in the face of Jesus Christ. f you are interested in getting a SearchingSoul group going in your locality get in contact mailto:ian.mobsby@southwark.anglican.org or facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/579336342436523/

Ian Mobsby , Woolwich Area Mission Enabler

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20888141

[2] For example https://www.meetup.com/SearchingSoul-Vauxhall-Borough/

Sacred Space, Kingston

Andrea’s mission work in Kingston grew out of listening – both to God and to the prevailing culture of her surroundings. She was an elder in an independent, charismatic evangelical church, and felt called to be a leader – but she wasn’t sure what exactly God had in mind for her. A catalyst came in the form of a phone call from a friend who had had a spiritual experience and sought Andrea’s help in interpreting what she had felt. Although she took the time to discuss the experience and God’s work, Andrea felt that she had failed to engage her friend’s interest to the extent that she might want to further explore faith.

As a result of that conversation and her feelings about it afterwards, Andrea became aware of local interest in spirituality – both in pop culture and conversations with friends, certain topics kept coming up: mediums and tarot readers; acupuncture; yoga; séances; using a Ouija board. She had been warned against ‘occult’ activities, but wondered whether interest in these ideas could be used as a way to talk about Christian spirituality. She also discovered that a group called Eden People in nearby Guildford had started attending New Age fairs, and offering prayer for those in attendance. Andrea felt called to do something similar in Kingston and booked a pitch at Kingston Green Fair, joining forces with another church that was also keen to have a presence. Andrea says, “Some Christians I mentioned it to were very wary, but I felt God confirmed to me at every step that I was in the right place and doing what was required of me… we were overwhelmed with the number of people who wanted to talk to us and receive prayer.”

At the fair, people came to Andrea with stories of Jesus appearing in dreams and visions, to bring healing and freedom. It was a wonderful privilege to minister to people in this way, but she also felt frustrated that these amazing one-off encounters weren’t going any further: “I had no idea how we might create a means to facilitate on-going discipleship and was unsure about inviting the people I was meeting to a regular church service.” Following talks with her partners, she formed Sacred Space Kingston to address this need. Sacred Space put on arts workshops and exhibitions in the hope that art would help to encourage ideas infused with the sacred and offer potential for encountering the divine. Andrea also looked for ways to build longer-lasting relationships with those outside the usual orbit of the church; she started a book group, and wrote and ran a meditation course at the YMCA as part of their health and fitness programme.

Throughout this period, Andrea remained an elder and continued to regularly attend meetings at her church, but she was finding it increasingly difficult to integrate her experiences of God in mission with what was being articulated at church. She eventually decided to leave the church and set up a Bible study and prayer group on a nearby housing estate; she supported the unchurched people who attended to become Christians, and watched them grow in their newfound faith.

Andrea’s hope was that the new Christians would be discipled by those who had been in church and left at the same time she did; sadly, this did not happen as envisioned due to a clash of culture between the churched and new Christians. Despite this, Sacred Space continued to develop a rhythm of life, and now up to twelve people meet on a monthly basis for a home group session where they discuss themes arising from the Bible and other Christian writings. The group also shares a regular community meal and goes on outings to further the members’ shared interest in the arts and spirituality.

Members are encouraged to explore and fulfil their vocations, and to disciple others – one woman had the idea of establishing a town centre chaplaincy; this was successful and she now oversees its running and development, as well as being an elder in another church. Andrea says, “For us in Sacred Space, mission is the ultimate expression of God’s love in creation, and our relationships have a positive outward expression in the locality where we live and work.”

At Sacred Space, love for God and for one another extends beyond the group to make a difference in the wider community. They offer hospitality to people that not everyone in the group knows; their community meals are a way to ensure that everyone is included. Andrea says that, “because friendship and a desire to be good news in our locality are more important to us than belief, Sacred Space is a network of relationships that has indeterminate edges. This creates the freedom for people to question their faith and decide they no longer want to call themselves a Christian, but they may still continue to walk with us as friends.” Other members are part of other, more traditional churches, but still get something valuable and distinct from their participation at Sacred Space. Because of this intentional flexibility, Sacred Space can feel messy and is not easily defined; Andrea is now looking to formalise the group and shift to a team leadership, possibly by way of a Bishop’s Mission Order.

Andrea knows that any one fresh expression won’t cater to everyone’s needs: “rather than seeking to bring everyone into the Sacred Space missional community, I would love to see indigenous expressions of church emerge in the other sub-cultures where we have a presence and are doing outreach.” As she discovered the hard way, trying to integrate a self-contained group of new Christians with people who had come from a particular style of church – and had therefore established a specific, separate culture – was just not possible. She has brought this knowledge to her current project, working with Christians who are part of the steampunk subculture: Andrea has been clear with her friends in this subculture that they should not bring those interested in exploring Christianity to Sacred Space, but instead to think about how they might disciple people as steampunks, and see what indigenous expression of church evolves.

She says, “I recognise we have as much to learn and as many rough edges to be rubbed smooth by relationship as anyone else. If discipleship is a two-way process both Sacred Space and an emerging expression of church for steampunks, for example, will be moulded by God through our ongoing interaction and conversation. They need to be free to develop as the Holy Spirit leads them and at the same time remain part of us through relationship. Thus, we model the unity in diversity of the Trinity in microcosm in the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames.