Evangelical Christianity: It's Glastonbury for God
Church of England pews may be empty, but the fields of Somerset are rocking with a series of evangelical festivals this summer. Jerome Taylor joined the faithful
Thursday 06 August 2009
Rich Nathan is just about to wrap up his evening sermon when a loud and piercing shriek erupts from the back of his congregation. A woman in the crowd of 3,000 worshippers is shaking uncontrollably and wailing. "Jesus!" she cries. "Jesus I feel you!" Nearer the front of the stage, a small and equally exuberant group of faithful is receiving the Holy Spirit in other ways. Some rock from side to side, others simply mutter in hushed tones or raise their hands skywards.
It could be a scene from the American Mid-West – Pastor Nathan is, after all, a prominent Jewish-born convert to Christianity who leads a church in Ohio. But today's energetic act of mass worship is taking place in the rolling countryside of Somerset, just to the south of the picturesque town of Shepton Mallet.
As the leaders of Britain's more mainstream denominations scratch their heads and debate how to revitalise their congregations, evangelical Christianity in Britain is going from strength to strength. The number of evangelical churches in Britain has risen from 2047 to 2,719 since 1998 and their followers now make up 34 per cent of Anglicans, figures show.
Nowhere is the strength of British evangelism more apparent than at the numerous summer festivals that have sprung up and attract tens of thousands of people every year. Britain's first atheist summer camp, attended by 24 children last week, made headlines around the world. But just down the road an estimated 60,000 Christians of many different but predominantly evangelical hues will pass through the gates of the Royal Bath and West Showground over the next five weeks for a succession of festivals that offers a heady mix of Glastonbury and God.
This week's festival is organised by New Wine, a non-denominational group representing 800 churches. It holds three "summer conferences" in July and August that each attract about 10,000 people. Open to Christians and non-Christians, the festival is seen as one of the most important dates in the calendar for evangelicals to meet. Thousands of families travel to Somerset with their tents to attend a variety of religious attractions, from seminars on such varied subjects as conversion and sex within marriage, to rock concerts and prayer groups. The highlight each day is an evening mass worship session which is held in two enormous big-top tents.
Mark Bailey, the lead pastor at Trinity Church in Cheltenham and the host of this week's festivities, believes the key to attracting new followers is to turn worship into a contemporary practice that people can relate to. He says: "We have a particular commitment to try and encourage churches to express their worship and engage in the mission of a church that is appropriate for 21st century Britain. It means we are absolutely clear about the message – which is an orthodox message – but it is spread in an appropriate way for our culture and our world." In other words, if you swap organs and hymns for guitars and pop songs, people will come flocking.
Tapping away on a laptop in one of the many bars at the campsite, Ben McCalla is the kind of young devotee who is attracted to this style of "charismatic Christianity". Mr McCalla, 23, and his wife, who sings in one of the many Christian rock bands that often lead prayer sessions, attend Trent Vineyard, a large church near the University of Nottingham which is part of a wider network of American evangelical churches.
"I grew up in an evangelical family but I know that what attracts so many people is how open and accessible our form of worship is," he says. "Anyone can join and the worship is in a language everybody can understand and relate to."
His friend Zach Wright, 21, agrees. "A lot of the people who come to these festivals are from what I would call 'hymns and pew' churches, but when they come here their eyes are opened," he says. "It inspires them to go out and do charismatic work or bring charismatic worship back to their own congregations."
On another side of the camp – past the clothes stand selling T-shirts with holy slogans such as Gracebook and JC/DC (Jesus Christ/Demon Crusher) to trendy teenagers – Nicholas Piercy, 39, father of two, has just attended an afternoon seminar bythe Right Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the soon-to-retire Bishop of Rochester, who stands on the evangelical wing of the Church of England and has often courted controversy with his comments about Islam.
Mr Piercy and his wife, Claudia, used to attend a Methodist church in Marlborough, Wiltshire, but joined a more charismatic congregation after visiting last year's New Wine festival. Today, they have been to a prayer session where Mr Piercy's wife was "slain in the spirit" – the term used to describe the moment where the Holy Spirit makes a devotee fall backwards. "I'm not a fan of the term 'slain in the spirit' but what I do know was that Claudia experienced a manifestation of God," Mr Piercy says. "For me, it reinforces our belief in the power of prayer, and to be surrounded by so many like minded people is incredible. When I attended my first evening worship, I felt this blast of warmth as I entered the tent and I literally broke down in tears."
It is powerfully spiritual experiences like these that the evangelical movement is keen to export. and the importance of proselytising plays a prominent role in many of the daily seminars on offer to the faithful at New Wine. "The vision is to see the nation changed," says John Coles, the festival director. "What that means for us is for people to understand and experience the goodness and generosity of God. The basic tenor of our society is secular humanism which denies the reality of God and the power of God to intervene and change people's lives. There is a huge amount of law-making now that seems to restrict Christian freedom, even the ability to speak about Christian values."
While the total number of evangelical churches in Britain is increasing, the real growth area has been in churches inspired by the American form of worship that emphasises the validity of miracles, prophesy and "glossolalia", or speaking in tongues. This form of "charismatic evangelism" is practiced in 1,308 churches across the country.
One of this week's biggest draws was a lecture by Bishop Michael entitled "Persecution, terrorism and national security", which essentially covered how Christians are often persecuted in the Islamic world and whether followers of Christ should look to convert their Muslim friends – a particularly controversial topic because the punishment for apostasy in all four schools of sharia law is death. Speaking to a crowd of more than 3,000, Bishop Michael said: "People say – rightly and understandably – if they can build mosques in Burnley... why should there not be churches in Saudi Arabia; or indeed new churches being allowed to be built in say Pakistan?"
It was a message that one pastor, from a church in a predominantly Muslim area of Birmingham, took to heart as he proudly introduced the bishop to a young Afghan who had recently converted to Christianity. "I sometimes feel like I am on two boats," the Afghan said. "Always keep your eye on Jesus," replied the bishop.
Glastonbury may be over, but the hills around Shepton Mallet will echo to the sounds of music for many more weeks this summer. The only drug on offer, though, is Jesus.
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