Hard church, soft church and mission

In my last post I suggested one way of thinking about current varieties of Christianity as a distinction between hard churches and soft churches. I now want to talk about the implications of this for mission. Both the hard and soft churches want more people to become Christian and join the church, even if they disagree on what that actually means and involves. How do these different churches relate to those who are non-church (who don’t believe or aren’t currently involved in a church)?

I want to start with another (doubtless simplistic) diagram about how people move between being hard, soft or non-church:


People may start at any of the three options (basically what they are raised in as children), but over their life they are likely to move between them. What I’m interested in here is why and how they move in and out of both. The main distinction is whether you drift in or out of an option (slow, gradual movement) or whether you jump (sudden decision). Hard churches are very much set up for jumping in. You have to make that commitment, leap of faith, decision etc, whether you’ve previously been non-church/non-Christian or whether you’ve been in a soft church that the hard church doesn’t consider to be properly Christian. In contrast, you can drift into a soft church and never have to make a definitive commitment to membership if you don’t want to (going onto the coffee-making rota is probably the nearest thing).

Equally, in a soft church it’s possible to drift out, gradually losing contact with it. When people leave hard churches, however, it’s more likely to be dramatic. They decide their church is wrong and they reject it by jumping out of it, sometimes abandoning churches and Christianity completely, sometime finding a soft church instead. (I’m not considering here the frequent phenomenon of people jumping out of one hard church and into another). There are some people, such as me, who gradually become disillusioned with a hard church and drift out of it into a soft church, but I think that’s less common.

Hard church mission

If you’re looking at mission now in the UK (because mission is very culture-specific), how effective are the hard and soft churches’ approaches? The hard churches’ story for the last 20 years is that people are jumping in (converting) to hard churches while drifting out of soft churches. But I see increasing problems with the standard hard church approach to mission and also some possibilities within the standard soft church approach (from the perspective of somebody in a growing soft church).

Firstly, the standard hard church method. This is:

1) Get people along
2) Tell them the message
3) Get commitment

There are increasing problems at all three stages:

Stage 1 – it’s harder to get people to come to any event/activity, just because there are increasingly more things going on and more opportunities. If you have a choice between X and nothing much in a specific time and place, you’re going to get more people at X than if you have a choice of X, Y or Z. Think of it as the real-world equivalent of multi-channel TV: it’s harder to get an audience for any individual event.

Stage 2 – it is becoming more difficult to tell people the hard church message. One reason is that people are less familiar with any aspects of Christianity and so it takes longer to explain the message than when preachers could assume most people had at least a cultural background of Christianity. (Christianity has never been a religion of conversion at the point of a sword, but that’s mainly because by the time you’ve explained the Trinity your sword arm would have dropped from fatigue). When terms such as sin or salvation are completely alien to your hearers, you need a lot of additional groundwork: you have to get people to come back to hear repeatedly before committing, and you’re obviously going to get more attrition.

Secondly, the hard church message is now more offensive/incongruous to people. Attitudes to homosexuality are the obvious example (although not the only one). I found some figures from the British Social Attitudes website, which has some very useful time-series. I might post more about that later, but here are some highlights (rounded up to nearest percentage point). Those believing that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are always wrong: 1983 50%, 2006 24%. Among those who identify as having no religion, the figures are 1983 40%, 2006 13%. There is also a stark age gap: in 2006, 19% of 18-23 year olds thought same-sex sexual relations were always wrong and 14% of 55-59 year olds, as compared to 29% of 60-64 year olds and 46% of those 65+. Any church which makes condemnation of all homosexual acts an important part of their image or message is going to struggle to win over non-Christians, particularly young non-Christians. (‘The Bible tells me so’ is only a good argument to those who already accept the Bible).

Thirdly, it’s hard to get across the hard church message without coming across as authoritarian or patronising. That’s because it largely consists of telling people that they are wrong and you are right (or even more patronising, that there is something wrong with their lives that they don’t themselves realise). In a society that is increasingly hostile to being told what to do, that is a message that is less appealing.

Stage 3 – it is harder to get a commitment from anybody about anything now. If you don’t want to have a year-long contract for your mobile phone (in case a better offer comes along), why would you sign-up to a lifelong commitment to a church or to God? More that that, the hard churches’ undoubted ability at ‘marketing’ Christianity, is now becoming less of an advantage and more of a liability. People are generally far more aware of and hostile to sales techniques and far more sceptical about the existence of ulterior motives behind friendly approaches. And given that hard church mission almost always has a ulterior motive (to ‘win souls’), it’s hard to avoid this being spotted.

Soft church mission

If those are new problems for hard churches, what about soft churches? Their traditional problem (and it still exists) is shrinkage, which in turn weakens their appeal (who wants to join a group in decline)? My guess, however, is that the shrinkage is now mostly due to members of the congregation dying off without being replaced, rather than living people leaving the church. The big outflux from the soft church was when church-going stopped being part of social respectability, which in the UK had happened by the 1970s (unlike in the US). Most soft churches now have a majority of committed members (even though exactly what they are committed to may vary and the church itself doesn’t demand commitment). The difficult issue is how they can encourage non-church people (or ex-church people) to drift in and stay in.

It’s now that the standard soft church mission method, with its obvious flaws, may come into its own. This model is:

1) Help people/be there for people
2) ?
3) Church membership

The weakness of the soft church method has always been that it doesn’t convert church contact to church commitment (or in business language, sales prospects to sales). But that leaving of the initiative to the other party may now be an advantage, in a culture increasingly hostile to marketing. An emphasis on respecting a person’s choice, whether or not it’s one you agree with, is increasingly welcome to people. Paradoxically, we may have not to mind whether or not people become Christians to encourage them to become Christians. (It’s all too easy in hard churches for rejection of God and rejection of us to get tangled up together).

I think the soft church also now has possibilities in helping/being there for people that the hard churches are increasingly losing. For example, it is easier for soft churches to be involved with schools in an increasingly multicultural society. Most schools do not want to get involved with anyone who will alienate the Muslim/Sikh/non-believing children and parents in the school by telling them they are wicked/going the wrong way/misguided/spiritually blind. Relatively bland messages are necessary for such work.

Similarly, non-church people still often want to turn to churches for celebrations (baptisms, marriages) and in times of trouble (funerals, relationship break-up, illness etc.) What they may hear from a hard church is ‘we won’t do a service unless you’re prove you’re one of us’ or ‘your problems are due to your lack of faith’ or ‘your mother won’t go to heaven because she didn’t believe’. It’s hard to get alongside people at such moments if you take a judgmental attitude: the fuzzier theology of soft churches is useful here.

What I think soft churches need to do is develop these ways of being alongside people and also adopt a different marketing approach: ‘If you like this, you might try this’. If you like the children’s crib service, why not try the monthly family service? My current church is proving quite good at this approach to building relationships. There are bereavement/pastoral care teams and also ‘follow-up’ options: for example, an annual memorial service for all the families who have had funerals there recently. Similarly, as well as baptism visitors, those who have been baptised recently get individual invitations to particular family events at church. These repeated contacts may sometimes lead to a person developing a relationship with the church; if they don’t, they are nevertheless still valuable, as signs of concern for and interest in others.

What my discussion of mission finally shows, I hope, is that both hard churches and soft churches are necessary. Some of the hard churches in Anglicanism seem to be in the mood now that the soft churches should be driven out, that they are of no use, just as in some liberal Anglican thought there is the fantasy of the hard churchmen just going away and not dragging us down anymore. But in fact both hard and soft church Anglicanism have their own unique selling points or ecological niches and Christianity as a whole would be impoverished without them. However much hard churches may think that soft churches aren’t truly Christian, they can reach out to people who the hard churches can’t. Meanwhile, members of soft churches must also be willing to recognize that there are some in hard churches who are truly holy: people whose expressed values may seem reactionary, but whose personal life shows the love of God. If soft church members accept that there are many ways to God, they have to allow that some people may be attracted and supported by a black-and-white approach, even if they personally aren’t. It is little better to have one true liberal way to God than one true Conservative way. Soft churches and hard churches may not be comfortable with one another, but they are stronger together than apart.


6 thoughts on “Hard church, soft church and mission

  1. “Hard” and “soft” approaches are complementary in a social environment like the UK’s current climate. That makes a lot of sense. Indeed, I think it explains why the US didn’t have quite as big of a dip in church attendance in the ’70s. Make no mistake–we had one too, but the effects weren’t as profound because we’ve never had an Established Church that one “ought” to attend. As a result, we had a pretty wide spectrum from the super-hard to the squishy-soft already available.

    From a theological perspective too I see the hard and soft as complimentary. As human institutions, *all* churches lose touch with some parts of the Gospel. We need to keep talking with one another–even when and where we profoundly disagree–in order to be challenged by (and to challenge in return) the other church factions or bodies. Three distinct parties is actually one of the Anglican Communion’s blessings despite our disagreements. Alas, hardheartedness on all sides may be bring that to an end…


  2. Christianity has never been a religion of conversion at the point of a sword,

    There are Amerindians from Mexico in the time of Cortes who would disagree with you – or would have, if they hadn’t been put to the sword.

    Technically, the Spanish Catholic position was that you couldn’t actually force people to convert. But you could force them to sit and listen quietly, and behave properly while doing so, and pay “tribute” for the privilege – and you could put them to the sword if they resisted any of this. I’m not sure the recipient (victim) population necessarily appreciated this subtle theological distinction.


    • At some point I want to write about ‘forced conversion’ under Charlemagne (particularly of the Saxons) and unpack the notion a bit more carefully. I think there is a whole spectrum of coercive and partly-coercive practices involved and that we need to think more carefully about exactly what they are, rather than just lump them together.

      So I was (in passing) making the point that the most extreme form of conversion (convert on this day or die) has never (that I know of) been practised by Christians on non-believers. They first have to be instructed in the Truth, and because that Truth is, for Trinitarians quite complex, it cannot normally be taught/learned instantaneously (though with the cop-out that the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit may make people voluntarily understand and convert instantaneously).

      On the other hand, it was acceptable to make Christian heretics repent or die on a day, because heretics (by definition) were people who did know the Truth but chose to ignore it. They didn’t need to learn the Truth, they just needed to accept it.

      I’m sure that the Amerindians (along with many other similar groups) wouldn’t have appreciated such fine distinctions. But much of medieval (and later) history is about subtle analysis of exactly how and why oppressed groups were oppressed. If you don’t do this, you have to just sum up the period as ‘horrible for all but those at the top’ and move on to talk about Hitler and Stalin instead, like all the other historians. 😉


  3. “..it is becoming more difficult to tell people the hard church message.”

    Oth4er reasons include the fact that it is sometimes demonstrably wrong, as in the approach many Christian have taken to scientific knowledge which does not suit their literal interpretation of some parts of the bible. Thus we have the ludicrous position of creationists actually confirming people in taking a non-Christian stance every time they open their mouths.


  4. I would have sent you an email but I didn’t see one listed on the site, so I just thought I would post here.

    I came across your site through the Modern Medieval blog. I noticed we share similar interests in the medieval period, and we read similar blogs: Carl Pyrdum’s Got Medieval Blog and A Corner of Tenth Century Europe blog. I’ve been a subscriber to those two blogs for some time.

    I’m just now trying to fill out my own blogroll — I’ve been slow to add other resource links to my website — and the category of “medieval resources” definitely needs some links added to it, so I was wondering if you would be interested in trading links: I’ll add your site to my blogroll and vice versa. Let me know if you’re interested.

    Best wishes,



  5. Yes that’s a good diagram, but surely from soft to hard people can drift in (attendance over a long period, picking up the patterns) and they could fall in and fall out too. Jumping in and out must be the case from hard to none and none to hard.

    Much of this also relates to different tendencies of Christianity in actual churches on the ground: in some cases high barriers have to leapt, but in others you are allowed to develop at your own pace. High barriers also mean leaving has to be a more obvious move.

    We also shouldn’t forget the effect of social networks at keeping people in churches sometimes long after beliefs have drifted away, or conversely that they keep beliefs going where they otherwise would not be.


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