If the church’s days are numbered, is its future Outnumbered?

Outnumbered was a ground breaking BBC family orientated Sitcom. Its contemporaries were the then starting to date ‘2 point 4 Children’, which like many sitcoms, relied heavily on scripted, rehearsed dialogue. Outnumbered was different. It gave space for the children to act, and perform, and everyone else in the scene reacted to the moments of improvisation by the children. Yes themes were set, yes the scenes were created, like being in an airport, or talking about sex around the dinner table, or school, or talking about old age when Grandad starts to be ill. Not only did it give space for children, and the young people who played them ( who were near teenagers) , space to be creative, it also meant that the other actors, albeit in the role they were playing, had to improvise in accordance with their character, their role and the overall plotline – which was known.  Even if each episode had a beginning and an end, or a theme, and a direction, especially in regard to time scales. Many scenes were of people being given the space to improvise.

The writers use improvisation in order to achieve convincing performances from the child actors. Dennis commented: “In most sitcoms all the lines for children are written by adults. So they are speaking the words of people 30 years older. And you really want kids to have their own voices, and say their own things.”[2] Jenkin (Producer) added:

You rarely get the feeling that children in sitcoms are real. They tend to be the same type of character – the smartarse who says adult things – and they are rooted to the spot, staring at the camera, because they’ve been told to stand in one place and say the lines. We decided to attempt to do something that hadn’t been tried before, bounced some ideas around and we got very keen on this idea of involving improvisation very quickly.[11]

Details of which are Here

Church, says Healy is in the form of a “Never ending experiment” ( Nicholas Healy, 2001)

“Be Imitators of me, as I am of Christ , Says Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:1)

“Local Theology is a matter of congregational improvisation, in which the people act “naturally” as benefits of the City of God as they play out new scenes of the one continuing Theodrama” (Kevin Vanhoozer, 2005, 456)

Not a week goes by without a conversation on social media about the numbered days of the church, i wrote about it last week, after the Guardian presented 6 flourishing congregations in their articles. The secularisation debate goes on, and relative small scale samplings of congregations have been asserted as indicators of secularisation, and a church deemed in decline. However, the title of this blog, is ‘If the church’s days are numbered..’  Becuase in some places, as the Guardian article testifies, and especially larger churches in suburbia might also lay claim to, their days dont seem numbered when they amass audiences for their local productions. Especially in University Towns and cities where a residual faith of successful evangelical Christians survives – like Durham & York.

In reality,I dont think it matters too much about whether the church’s days are numbered or not, at least not for the sake of the future turn of the church in the space of the world. 

What has been noticeable, in all of the new initaitives, in the Guardian Article, and also the rise of the Fresh Expression movement, is that new spaces of church are being created. From Cafe Church to Messy Church, Alpha, Youth Church, and House groups. The question I have is to what extent are these expressions attractional for the not already involved in the church, or just another expression for the same christians to find somewhere else to go. And in regard to the opening question, if there are spaces that are opened up for faith, and exploring faith with new explorers, how much of that space is open for community exploring.

I wonder if the underlying process of any space creating form of church is to consider itself as an interactive, nee street theatre approach. Often some of these new expressions are just the same method and format in a different space, a different space with a new title. For After school activity club, read Messy Church. For youth group, see Cafe church. Street Theatre has a different approach:

The Members of the street theatre group go to the people bearing the gift of theatre with them, and despite their undisguised political intentions and the difficult and trying conditions under which they work, their shows are entertaining, instructive and unpretentious. They induce the formal distance between performer and audience. Their style is polyglot – dance, song, grotesques, straight dialogue, spicy asides. Nearly every tool in the actors repertory is employed. The cutting edge is sharp ( Gunawardana, 1992)

In the interactive theatre, the overall destination is known, but the process of getting there are guided by principles of collective creation. A step further than Outnumbered perhaps, but that, not unlike the church, starts from a culture of tightly scripted performances, programmes and high regard for control. Though the church isnt making TV shows, and what is at stake if the service, the group, the messy church, is actually messy. Critically – where is God in the space?  in the conversations & the pre programmed – in the art of the process or the fulfilment of activity?

What if the church in its mission, went about creating open spaces of community, call them what they are collectively called, and trusted in the gifts of the actors, and the exploring of the guests. Maybe the challenges of the local church arent the same as those who ply the art of street theatre, ie the political and trying situations, does the gravitational pull of the church to programmes, to ‘leader-led’ to conference style, and more specifically to ‘fill the space’ mean that the street theatre actors find the scenario as trying. It is a political movement, political as it might challenge these status quos. challenge a ministry mentality, a leader mentality. Yet – interactive street theatre amongst the forgotten communities of the UK is probably the sure finest way of enabling faith exploration to begin. Everything else is inviting people to spectate the same performances.

Opening the spaces trusts in the skills of the actors, and the humanity of the guests. In the interactive theatre of the Gospel all are performers, not just as in outnumbered or in the once a year youth service, the children, but not only children who are prepared and part of the culture, but all are invited guests to perform. The challenge is to be amongst people to create those spaces, let the Theatre of the Gospel, and the performances of improvised, interactive churches begin.

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