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Page last updated at 13:40 GMT, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Crystals versus Christ

Mark Berry
On a mission: Mark Berry is looking for the spiritual-but-not-religious
While church numbers have been falling for years, these days the trend is for spirituality with no links to organised religion. Now the Church is on a mission to convert the so-called spiritual-but-not-religious, reports Jolyon Jenkins.

At the Mind Body Spirit Fair, held in Telford last autumn, you could consult a clairvoyant, purchase psychic healing, or stock up on healing crystals. You could also, if you wanted, talk to Mark Berry.

Mark is a Christian missionary - although he doesn't like the word much - to Telford, sent there by the Church of England and the Church Mission Society, because Telford has one of the lowest church-going populations in Britain. He's set up a small church, with about a dozen members, which meets in his small house on a modern estate.

When Mark first arrived in Telford, three-and-a-half years ago, he said he wanted to connect with people who were "spiritual but not religious". It's an interesting phrase, and one you hear a lot nowadays.

The Most Godless Town in Britain is on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, 28 January at 1030 GMT
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On one of Britain's most popular internet dating sites, more people use this phrase to describe themselves than "Christian", "atheist", or "agnostic".

Mr Berry is very clear that he is not an evangelist, that he's not there to enrol.

"God's mission is not just about recruiting people to an institutional church," he says. "It's about wanting to bring peace, wanting to bring reconciliation, wanting to bring hope wanting to bring a kind of holistic connection with the whole of humanity as creation and all of that, and wanting to bring a restoration of relationship with God and with the spiritual."

Mr Berry feels that there is a lot of "spirituality" out there, looking for a home. But can Christianity provide it?

At first sight, the answer is self-evidently no. Church-going has declined dramatically since World War II and now only a million people are regular Sunday attenders, although with less frequent worshippers the figure goes up to nearer two million.

The Church of England clearly doesn't hit the spot for the legions of spiritual-but-not-religious drifters.

Sharing a meal

From the point of view of bums on pews, these may not be the ideal target audience anyway. Telford is part of Lichfield diocese, which has appointed a "growth officer", The Venerable Bob Jackson. His approach is very different to Mr Berry's.

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He points to a survey that shows "there are about three million people in this country who would consider going to church if only someone invited them."

That's encouraged people like him to think churches just need to be a bit more welcoming, a little more inclusive to the spiritual-but-not religious brigade, and the decline could be reversed.

But however welcoming churches are, the conventional Sunday service won't appeal to everyone, and so the CofE, in association with the Methodists, also has a programme called Fresh Expressions aimed at finding new forms of church for those reluctant to set foot in a traditional building.

This can be a social event - meeting at someone's home to share a meal and to talk - or it can mean social work, getting out in the community to make connections.

"We think of it as our R&D department", says Archdeacon Jackson. "We want church to be a verb not a noun," is a favourite phrase from Fresh Expressions enthusiasts, who often talk of "emerging churches"

Among the initiatives are "Rezurgence", a Christian "extreme sport'' ministry in Surrey, which describes itself as "a unique first that brings mountain biking, BMX and faith into one'', and a Christian skateboarding park in Essex.

Rules and dogma

Mr Berry's own interpretation is a social centre next door to a night club for people who just want to drop in for a chat. It's his group's way of reaching out to the community.

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But are such efforts to re-cast religion in a more everyday context going to reach out to the spiritual-but-not-religious masses? After all, what separates them from Christians is not so much their taste in worship style as their wish to construct a belief system built on their own preferences, lifestyle and desire for personal growth, rather than submitting to the authority and rules laid down from on high.

It's a fact for many paid-up church members that religion involves at least some rules and dogma, and spiritual development requires a certain degree of commitment and hard work.

So can emerging churches bridge that gap?

Ian Mobsby, an emerging church guru, argues we live in the age of the "spiritual tourist"; a "world driven by individualism... where people want to experience something that brings peace, centredness and depth."

He sees parallels between today's post-religious culture and the early days of Christianity, a time of prevailing mysticism in Europe.

"We are entering a world where people aren't interested in whether something is true or not, or whether they believe it or not, but whether it works," says Mr Mobsby.

In other words, if an emerging church can offer a sense of community and give a feeling of inner peace, that may be enough - belief will follow.

But three years into his mission in Telford, Mark Berry's core community is not spiritual-but-not-religious recruits, but already-committed Christians who use his gatherings to deepen and provide new perspectives on their faith.

There may be a hole in people's lives, but there's not a great deal of evidence that it is God-shaped.

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