Greenbelt needs to rediscover it’s spiritual confidence

Greenbelt 2015For some people the annual Greenbelt festival, with its blend of music, arts, justice and spirituality, is an article of their faith.  It provokes a fierce devotion in those who would never dream of being anywhere else on the August Bank Holiday weekend.

But as the trustees of the festival have made clear, Greenbelt faces serious challenges.  It moved to a new site last year, costs rose and the event lost money which has meant using up their reserves. They are looking at a smaller festival this year and the future seems uncertain.

I have written before on R&R that Greenbelt has been my favourite Christian festival because of its outward focus and commitment to justice. I have been many times and cherish great memories of inspirational seminars from people like Jim Wallis, Dave Andrews and John Smith.

But the disappointing side of Greenbelt is it’s tendency to be too right-on and predictably liberal in both its politics and theology.  In terms of who is invited to speak, it definitely pushes the envelope, but only in one direction. Too often, in my experience, more conservative perspectives are sneered at rather than engaged with.

‘Guardian-reading echo chamber’

I didn’t go to last year’s festival but I saw a panel of people they had assembled to discuss poverty. From the make-up of the panel, it was hard to see where much disagreement would come from.  A friend of my mine who did attend the discussion, confirmed my concerns: ‘It was like being stuck in a Guardian-reading echo chamber.’ However worthy, no one ever finds a panel of nodding heads very exciting.

Also, the youth work I have seen, and participated in, at Greenbelt lacks the kind of conviction which brings energy and vibrancy.  In contrast to the approach of an event like Soul Survivor, there was a timidity and uncertainty about the core Christian basis of what was being shared. There needs to be more than a commitment to ‘inclusion’ to inspire and excite young people.

Fundamental questions

The Chair of the Greenbelt Trustees, Andy Turner has written honestly about the challenges facing the festival and asks some fundamental questions, including:

  1. Is there a big enough audience in the UK for a progressive festival of arts, faith and justice? Do the wider demographics of religious institutions suggest Greenbelt’s audience is disappearing? Or is a Festival like this now more necessary than ever?
  2. Is Greenbelt still needed? (10,500 people who bought tickets in 2014 think so… but are they enough?)
  3. We love the young people who attend the Festival but there’s not enough of them so how can Greenbelt become more their thing again?

Spiritual confidence

I think that fundamental to answering all these questions is the core issue of spiritual confidence. In my opinion, Greenbelt needs to re-discover its spiritual mojo. The Christian faith has been a huge part of Greenbelt’s story, and it will be fundamental to its vision going forward.

Greenbelt needs to rediscover it spiritual nerve: to be prepared to be properly radical by getting back to the roots from which it was birthed.  In many ways, the church is more than ever committed to social justice – but often the new initiatives are not coming from liberal and traditional churches. It should have more contributions from charismatic churches and learn from the spiritual vibrancy of other events like New Wine and Big Church Day Out.

The source of inclusion

Greenbelt cherishes its inclusivity. But, this inclusion comes from a divine source – it is not simply self-generated.

Christians believe that God created the abundant diversity of humanity. That each and every person is made in God’s image. And that this God continues to reach out to everyone with grace and the most inclusive love possible.

We worship a God who is radically inclusive.  But we don’t worship inclusion itself. There is a big difference: the unearned grace of God must always remain central and not be replaced by a celebration of human tolerance.  This means talking confidently about Jesus, as well as justice.

There are many examples of institutional Christianity that are dying across the country – but there are also forms of faith which are flourishing. I hope Greenbelt can re-discover its spiritual confidence and continue to be a gathering which inspires engaged, Christ-centred spirituality that makes a real difference in the world.

See Greenbelt’s website for more details about the 2015 festival.

About Jon Kuhrt

Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football...but loves cricket.
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8 Responses to Greenbelt needs to rediscover it’s spiritual confidence

  1. BenNiblett says:

    I love Greenbelt, and one of my favourite things is that it’s a place where people from different strands of the church can come and have our disagreements well, listening to each other with respect, as we should. One of my least favourite things is the Sunday morning communion service which usually tends to be vague, shallow, twee and unconfident – it seldom feels like worshipping in Spirit and in truth, and it’s the point where I agree with you most. But then there are lots of smaller worship events over the festival and many of them have a power and a force I’ve remembered for years afterwards.

    So I encourage evangelicals to go to Greenbelt, contribute our point of view, and take up the offer of being included.

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Hi Ben – I love it too and have had many great times there. I hope this reads like a ‘critical friend’ who wants it to be as good as it can be – rather than tribal sniping! I agree about the communion being tricky but also that at many of the smaller events, especially where monks are involved, to have experienced some real treasures.

  2. dianewoodrow says:

    Oh Ben, you wrote my response. Thank you 🙂 X

  3. Nick Turner says:

    I am a Greenbelt addict. There I’ve said it. And I’ve been addicted since I was about sixteen. And we’re in the process of passing our addiction (or not) on to our three young girls. But a lot of what you say Jon, resonates with me. We’ll be at Greenbelt this year, but are also taking the girls to New Wine because, whilst it is not where our spiritual centre of gravity would necessarily settle, it is exactly what the girls enjoy and we hope will spark something spiritually in them, similar to the input my wife and I had as young people, that was instrumental in our own faith journeys. So are we being hypocritical, or spiritually consumerist (for us and our kids), or are we just trying to find a way for five different souls to relate to God, at different stages/ages in their lives?

    Not sure what I mean exactly, but coming back to Greenbelts, part of its beauty is definitely in the pacing. And the fact that that you can take Greenbelt at your own pace. Doing nothing, or everything. It’s the conversations as much as the staged bits.

    Alongside this, my least favourite part of Greenbelt is the Sunday morning communion service. But it is also the part that I would miss going to the most (we’ve tried to miss it a few times but been drawn back) because it is the only time that everyone (-ish) at the festival is in one place, together, worshipping God. And there is something in that fact that does more for my soul than what is happening on the stage or the way that we are ‘collectively’ worshipping God – which I imagine is not positioned exactly at anyone’s centre of spiritual gravity, but is maybe providing something else, something different.

    I’m rambling now 😉

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      thanks Nick. You were the kind of person I had in mind with the opening comments – a lot of my friends have a deep association with GB that I don’t have as I only went along in my 20s. I think this is why I feel I can be a bit objective about it – I think it has loads of great things but also weaknesses – as all events and organisations do. I think the appreciation / frustration with the central communion service is fascinating.

  4. andiibowsher says:

    I’ve long been involved in Greenbelt and appreciate being able to make my annual pllgrimmage. Like others above, I have a difficulty with the main Sunday communion while simultaneously appreciating it. I’ve experienced some great moments of appreciating God during it, I have cringed sometimes. I work as a volunteer and so being at it is not always straightforward and I’ve missed the last couple. I have been part of GB for long enough to recall it in the days when the charismatic and even Pentecostal strands were more present and catered for. Sometime in the early 90’s it seemed that break began and those strands were deemphasised. Perhaps this contributed to the creation of festivals like Soul Survivor and New Wine? I stick with GB because I appreciate the justice emphasis, the deliberate widening of the worship and spirituality repertoire (though a charismatic strand probably wouldn’t go amiss) and trying to create a space for exploration and deep learning and not just ‘teaching’. (Also the fact that I meet friends from all over the place).
    I’d like, however, to suggest a further recent issue: the move from a site near a town and a site which has hard standing and permanent buildings and loos. Given that the catastrophic drop in numbers coincided with moving from Cheltenham. Further, in the Cheltenham years, the demographic has got older and the Cheltenham site enabled easier access for those with mobility challenges. The return to a greenfield site (beautiful as it is) in the middle of a public transport nowhere has been a cause for a number of people I’m in touch with to reassess their participation. A number of us are hoping for a return either to Cheltenham or to a site with the characteristics I’ve mentioned (an agricultural showground might well work).
    To consider a radical move I’d suggest to the steering group to consider evolving into a city festival taking cues from the Edinburgh fringe and the Hay on Wye literature festival, for example.

  5. Josh Gaunt says:

    Just come across this blog from someone who sent me a link. I’ve been going to Greenbelt for the past 8 or 9 years, and it is a highlight of the year.

    Some of the points i recognise. Yes, it can certianly seem like a ‘Guardian reading echo chamber’ (albeit with a higher calibre of speaker than lots of places), there are exceptions, such as with speakers like Peter Oborne (who bravely described daily mail readers as oppressed group which shocked a few). Is it because only certain people get invited, or is it because only certain people want to come? Similarly with the lack of evangelical charismatics, although again there are some, such as Y-Friday on the mainstage, and Tim Hughes played to a capacity venue a couple of years ago. When this has been discussed elsewhere it has been said (not sure how authoritatively) that the line up reflects who wants to come, rather than a deliberate policy over invitations. Certainly I’ve heard a few evangelicals speak very dismissively of Greenbelt, and it’s a shame that the attitude of some appears to be to ignore it and dissuade others from going, when it would be good to engage.
    However if that’s what you’re looking for there are plenty of other places to go, and I can get a lot of that every week at church so at greenbelt I seek something new. I’m always surprised every year as to what I take away and from a different glimpse of God.

    Greenbelt’s strength is that it is so diverse, but it also makes it hard because everyone values different things, whether music, worships, talks, arts or something else. it is always interesting seeing debates about the festival because different people appreciate it for very different reasons and what they see the core thing of greenbelt as being. The location divides people, and i must admit to being one of those who thought Boughton last year was wonderful, as it returned to being a festival rather than an event on the edge of town by a conference centre, but as has been said above others have the opposite view!

  6. Ben Cohen says:

    Really appreciate this post. It sums up both why I love Greenbelt and I why I too, wish it could be shaken up a bit.
    The echo-chamber thing is a real problem for me. It reminds me of Glastonbury’s Left Field, where you would have a ‘debate’ on Globalisation with Naomi Klein, The Head of Unite and Billy Bragg. In both cases I don’t bother because I know the issue has already been settled.
    I remember when the Post Evangelical came out, how much talk there was of ‘no longer seeing things in black and white’. But I have to say i still see a lot of received certainties at Greenbelt – just different ones.

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