An investigation of how the church should be adapting its mission strategies and worship practices to the cultural landscape and spiritual journeys of the residents of York.

So tell us what prompted your research…
Basically, I wanted to look at the cultural and spiritual journeys of people in York specifically. Partly as a kind of “market research” for Visions and also to balance a lot of the research that has been done on a more national level. Are we providing a useful service for people or barking up the wrong trees? Are there other things we should be doing that would be more useful? I chose cultural *and* spiritual journeys because I believe that they are linked. People are profoundly affected by their cultures, the books they read the songs they listen to and their surrounding environment and these questions and thoughts will often take on a spiritual character because we are spiritual people. (well at least that’s what I reckoned).

So as well as reading lots of books and lobbing questionnaires out right-left-and centre I read lots of books and conducted twelve in depth interviews. The criteria were that the interviewees had to be residents of York, and not regular churchgoers. I asked questions, and then I sat and listened at length. Actually at times it was quite tempting to jump in with another question or a comment, but I didn’t. And because I didn’t some really interesting stuff came out that I don’t think would have come out otherwise.

When you talk about interviewing people of differing “cultural” journeys, do you mean people of other faiths?
As we didn’t really have much room on the word-count, and York isn’t known for being ethnically diverse (although things are improving) I tended to concentrate on people from a Western cultural background, but within my twelve interviewees I interviewed one pagan and two buddhists in the end. Plus I discovered some people who I had previously assumed had had no church background, and actually they had previously been Christians but left for one reason or another.

What were you reading?
I read 30 books in total, including ones by Emerging church favourites Kester Brewin, Steve Hollinghurst and John Drane, classic books on mission like Vincent Donovan and David Bosch, recent research by Hunt and Hay and Heelas and Woodhead and books from an Anglican perspective like Paul Avis and Alan Billings.

What stuff came out – was it what you expected?
The biggest surprises were the stories of those who had previously been churchgoers but who had been pushed away, lost their faith, or simply didn’t feel they had any need for religion at this moment in time. The other surprises were cultural ones. When I talked about music very few people had a special song, and the types of music they mentioned were intriguing too. No-one mentioned rock music, which was telling considering the amount of churches that are switching to this format. (Although as my sample was quite small so this probably needs further research). The other surprise was the amount of people who actually love church buildings, but empty ones rather than on a Sunday when other people are in. Other answers were more as I expected, in that I thought the church as an institution would get bad press and I thought Jesus would get a good press. (And no real surprises there!)

I think there are several areas. Probably the most useful parts for the average person (or at least one interested in spiritual development stuff) are the conclusions. I learnt quite a few important lessons on what *not* to do and the horrendous damage that can be done by bad-leaders bent on running other people’s lives for them. The fact that one person I interviewed was ever told to choose between her university course and God left me completely speechless. It was completely outrageous! Plus the cold-shoulder offered to two others in my interviews by Christians after the person concerned left their “club” was also a bad surprise!

So, apart from avoiding trying to run other people’s lives for them, the more positive lessons I learnt were about the continuing value of sacred space and how to use it to enhance others journeys towards God, the value of talking and listening to others about their journeys and not thinking we’ve got it all sussed, and the fact that when it comes to music we might actually have some surprises thrown at us. Maybe we should try more classical stuff that would not previously be used in worship, like the Rite of Spring. (Although as yet I’m not quite sure where and how!) And maybe we should learn how to use the Christian meditative traditions more effectively, learn to tell our own stories better and learn how to engage in helpful dialogue with others rather than being “old skool” preachers who never listen.

Did the interviewees appear to gain anything from the experience?
Yes the interviewees seemed to really appreciate simply telling their stories in an uninterrupted manner, having a chance to really open up. Often we feel the need to at least justify the Christian position, but because I couldn’t do that in the context of research a lot more information seemed to come out. This made me wonder if actually there isn’t value in simply asking these questions and actively listening from time to time, but we need to find ways to pose those questions in a non-manipulative way. Doing research is a bit of a gift really, in that everyone can understand clear reasons why the questions are being asked because they are for an MA dissertation.

How can people get hold of the research?
There are three parts available to download from this site:
the Disseration ‘An investigation of…’ [PDF 136k]
the bibliography [PDF 61k]
the interview results [PDF 75k]
Sue Wallace is Ordained Anglican Priest to the ‘Visions’ Alt Worship & Emerging Church Community in York.