Thursday, March 15, 2007

Present Challenges: 3. The Congregation

It may seem strange listing the congregation as a challenge so I had better explain.

Christ Church is made up of two very distinct congregations. First, there is what I would describe as the Parish Congregation. People have been coming to Christ Church now for nearly 75 years. During this time, it has become very much part of the local community. People have come to regard it as their Church even if they don’t attend it very often. This is not to say that this Parish Congregation part of the Church isn’t represented in worship: it is. It is just that only a small percentage of it is there regularly on a Sunday.

People in the Parish Congregation feel comforted to know that 'the Church is there for you' for births, marriages, and deaths as well as the major festivals of the year. In this way, it is very much like a traditional Parish Church in England, and it is something that Church of England Churches (which we were until comparatively recently) do best. Indeed, the sort of community that the series Friends presents and which many find so attractive(see a previous post), the Parish Church had many, many years ago.

This then is the first congregation: the Parish Congregation, mainly Chinese, part of which comes to worship and part of which will come occasionally, but which values its attachment to the Church.

Secondly, there is the School Congregation. The key ages for children here are 3 and 5. At 3, they have to apply for kindergarten, which covers the ages of 4 and 5. At 5, they have to apply for primary school, which covers the ages of 6-11. The primary school a child attends will normally determine which secondary school the child will eventually go to. The kindergarten will help determine which primary school the child goes to. Getting into what are perceived as the better schools is fiercely competitive. Fiercely!

Children at the age of 3 will have portfolios of achievements. Every waking moment of the child will be occupied in educational activities. Parents will pay any amount of money and make any sacrifice to get their child into the desired kindergarten or the desired primary school. The system is open to the worst of abuses.

It is, then, no big deal for parents to get up on a Sunday morning to take their child to Church. If there is even the slightest chance it might even help a little, it is worth it. If a parent is willing to pay for Maths, Chinese, English, Art, and Music lessons, and much more besides, at the age of 3, it is no great sacrifice to go to Church for an hour on Sunday.

This means that we have a large number of people, easily outnumbering the numbers of the other part of the congregation, who come solely and only for the purpose of being able to say that they attend Christ Church when they apply for schools. Friends in England have said that this goes on there too. To an extent it does. But I have to tell you it is not remotely on the scale it is on here!

I have written about the problems this causes specifically with baptism, but the problems it causes are not confined by any means simply to baptism. For not only do people come to Church, they also say and do all the right things, and for a season become committed members of the Church. They learn the language, beliefs, and ideas. They volunteer for all the jobs. They are often very enthusiastic. They are prepared to give of their time, effort, and money. Until their child has got into the desired school, that is, then we don’t see them again.

The drop-out rate is about 95%. And that is probably only because the other 5% haven’t found the right school yet.

The normal response of people to this is to say it creates opportunities for evangelism and ministry. And it does, and I for one seek to take those opportunities. All I can say is that there is little evidence that such evangelism and ministry meets with any real success.

I suppose I could live with the School Congregation side of things were it not for the effect it has on the Parish Congregation. It is overwhelming and suffocating. Furthermore, it is hard not to become cynical.

Let me give a typical example. I am not referring to anyone specifically.

Imagine John starts coming to Church. He asks to see the Vicar. He explains that his life has been devoted to money and career in the past, but now he wants to find something more. He has discovered great spiritual fulfilment and meaning through coming to Church. He would like to volunteer to help and would like to offer support financially to the Church. He comes to meetings. He is a happy, friendly and apparently very sincere person. He talks about all God has done for him since joining the Church and how important Christ is in his life. People like him.

One day he asks to see the Vicar: ‘I hope you can help me. I have a son who is 3. I want him to have a Christian education. Could the Church help him get into the School?’ Whether or not his child gets into the School, once he knows the decision that is the last that is seen of him in Church.

An added challenge is that many of the Parish Congregation are very comfortable with this situation. It makes the Church feel full and busy. It keeps the show on the road and relieves the regulars of some of the workload. Sadly, it has to be said, it also gives some the feeling of power and influence. For the Vicar won’t be the only person John approaches for help.

I know, in theory at least, how to minister to the Parish Congregation. I haven’t a clue how to minister to the School Congregation. You see its not ministering they want. It’s a place at one of the Schools that they are after. And they are extremely focused on getting it.

And while I have been writing this blog, I have received three requests for baptism from families wanting to get their child into School.

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