A couple of weeks ago, I received a phone call at around 1.15 a.m. It wasn't, as you might suppose, a pastoral emergency, such as a sudden bereavement or illness. It was my daughter, wanting a lift home (with the inevitable friend) from a party which had unsurprisingly gone on longer than advertised.
The taxi service duly completed, Polly showed me, with some indignation, a couple of religious tracts that she had been given. One was about "what to do to go to Hell." Answer: do nothing! To avoid the fiery fate, however, one had to commit one's life to Christ. Daughter is all in favour of following Christ, but wasn't as certain as the tract's writer about the destination of those who don't - or even whether such a destination exists.
The second tract took the form of scratch card quiz - what is the world's favourite... name? (Mohammad)... flavour (Vanilla) and fairy tale (Darwinian evolution). Eh? Yes, quite. (A web address was provided, so the reader could be convinced of the last point - I didn't find it convincing.) The piece then went on to ask the reader whether they had broken any of the 10 commandments. If so, we were assured, we were going to Hell. So we had to commit our lives to Christ.
Now, as you may guess, I have more than a few theological, philosophical and scientific reservations about these little publications. But questions about the justice of Hell, the overwhelming evidence for evolution or the 10 commandments as a universal standard of judgement are not, in fact, my main worry about them.
The real problem is that they fail to engage with any questions which people outside the church are really asking. How many of our neighbours are genuinely worried about the possibility of eternal damnation? How many are likely to be convinced that evolution is a myth? And for that matter, how many could even list the 10 commandments, let alone worry about them?
To be sure, most would agree that murder is (usually) a bad thing, that stealing is wrong (unless you're Robin Hood) and that adultery is generally bad (unless you're actually doing it, of course). But if we worried about bearing false witness, a lot of newspapers would be rather slimmer, and our whole culture is based on coveting our neighbours' possessions (at least to the extent that we will buy something like them for ourselves). As for losing sleep over taking the Lord's name in vain or making graven images.....
Now, I happen to think that this is a bad state of affairs, but it's not likely to change if I threaten everyone with the flame that is never quenched or the worm that never dies. The Christian message simply misses the mark if it is only about issues which no one particularly cares about these days.
On the other hand, there are other questions being asked, and the tracts which roused Polly's ire are a particularly blatant example of the way in which the church as a whole tends to ignore them. To take one example, there seems to be a real interest in spirituality. People do look for signs that there is more to life than meets the eye, and that they themselves can be more than they are. There is a desire, not only for the ephemera of heath and beauty, but for a richer, fuller and more rewarding experience of life. There is the hope of encountering a transcendent reality, and of finding that one's own limitations can be overcome.
All around us we see advertisements that claim to meet some of these needs - Tarot readings, crystal energies, meditation classes and what have you. Yet the church, with 2,000 years of spiritual experience and technique is rarely considered as being in the running as a provider of spiritual growth or experience.
I'm sure that the reason is that we are still answering yesterday's questions. We are seen as locked in battles about meaningless doctrines (still arguing about transubstantiation, forsooth) and outmoded morality (gay bishops anyone?) It doesn't matter whether these are really important or not - they are special interest issues, and meaningless to most of our neighbours.
We need to listen again, and hear the real questions, and pose our answers to them, and not to the questions of the past. After all, on the spirituality example, don't we have something to offer? Aren't we about knowing the Spirit that pervades all the world, and called it into being? Didn't Jesus claim to give an abundance of life, and bring a new creation into the human heart?
We do indeed have answers for today's searchers. We just need to listen to what they are asking.