Working in a group of fairly standard village parishes, much of the mission of the churches has been based around strategic use of festivals and annual landmarks. Carol services are packed. Remembrance Sunday, which might have seemed on its way out, now draws larger crowds than have attended for many years. The festivals remind people that for many this is still ‘their’ church, and the opportunity is there to share the Gospel, to build on contacts and to invite people to deeper involvement.
All of which makes the pattern we are seeing on Mothering Sunday initially a bit of a surprise. Numbers have been dropping for the last ten years. Even dedicated and persuasive leaders of Brownies and Cubs find themselves unable to encourage families to attend. A quick check with a number of other church leaders in similar settings confirmed a broadly similar trend. Some, to be honest, are actually relieved to be free of the annual juggling act - saying that mothers are wonderful, while also affirming and not excluding the single, childless and bereaved.
So what’s happening?
It’s not just a simple matter of secularization. Were that the case, other annual high points would similarly be disappearing. Something else is going on. In part it is the privatization of the festival, with even committed Christians giving church a miss to take Mum out for a celebratory lunch. But it is also a reminder that there is no reason why any of the extra festivals that have grown up across the Church’s year, should continue to resonate in a changing society. Harvest is looking pretty wobbly too!
Making a response
One important response is to recognize that Mothering Sunday – well, OK, let’s be realistic and call it Mother’s Day – has a link with church for fewer and fewer people. God still cares about mothers and about family life, and the evangelismideas.org web site has some brilliant suggestions to use where mothers and families actually are on Mother’s Day. The day is still a mission opportunity, but one for reaching out, not for expecting families to come in.
Looking for the new Christingle
In places where going to church for big annual occasions is still important, there is one major success story, now approaching its 50th anniversary. Christingles, brought to Britain by the Children’s Society in 1968, resonate with a desire to celebrate light and goodness in dark winter months. They are Christmassy, but not so tied to Christmas that churches can’t use them at other times. And Christingle stands out as a church-linked event in its own right, not competing with family celebrations elsewhere.
Mother’s Day seems to be moving fast, out of church and very firmly into homes, family reunions and restaurants. But Christingle stands as a reminder that new annual celebrations can still tap into the desire to mark life stages, seasons and moods in the context of church worship.
So what might the next equivalent to Christingle be, the next new festival that really communicates? What elements of life do people around us most feel the need to mark, to celebrate or to explore? Which symbols or activities resonate with those around us? Are there new festivals emerging? Can we use Pentecost in a way that’s as easy to grasp as the Christingle message? Or how about going with the new landmarks in the lives of families and especially children, like Red Nose Day?
My guess is that our innovators are already at work in churches across the country, and that there are ideas around that should be shared. I’d love to her news of what’s going on out there.
Rev Mike Booker