Christianity must change or die (right?)

Up front: I am not a supporter of J.S. Spong, nor have I read his Why Christianity Must Change or Die. Nonetheless, it’s a catchy title for a blog post.

The Tron Kirk: Empty (now a market, actually)

A few years ago, I wrote a post filled with images of local Edinburgh churches now abandoned or converted into cafés, flats, theatres, office space, events venues, etc. As most people in Scotland are aware, the statistics for the church in Scotland are not so hot — last year we learned that 52% of Scotland’s population in the ranks of the religious ‘nones’ and 66% almost never attend services. I do not have the numbers handy, but the latest census data showed Edinburgh (if I remember correctly) the most secular city in the nation.

Not that England and Wales are necessarily doing much better on this sceptred isle — 48.5% of them are religious ‘nones’. In January of last year, only 760,000 of England’s population were regular attendees of the Church of England. 53 million people live in England.

Now, I’ll admit that perhaps things aren’t so dire in the USA as we like to think, but they aren’t exactly a ‘Christian nation’, either — 51% go to church or another worship between once a month and multiple times per week. Given that the same study gives 49% as the statistic of those who never go, obviously the data include other religious groups, which is fine if ‘religiosity’ is what you’re gauging. According to a Pew survey of 2013, only 37% attend weekly or more. And, according to a study a friend referenced in a sermon a decade ago, average attendance in real, live numbers, was 80.

This figure of 80 has stuck in my mind, and came home to me this evening as I was reading some research a friend and colleague has done into Joel Osteen and the Lakewood Church. Setting aside any theological concerns, Osteen’s church has around 50,000 members, and his big, traditional evangelistic rallies have had about 2,000,000 people come through them. Many of them would have been Christians, of course, just like at the old Billy Graham Crusades, or in enrollment on the Alpha Course. This is not to mention the millions and potential billions who can encounter Pastor Osteen on the Internet; his is one of the most popular YouTube channels out there.

Before moving to more thoughts, don’t worry — my homeland of Canada is surpassing the USA. As of 2012, only 27% of us were regular church attenders.

How does it work that so many people attend evangelistic events and listen to YouTube sermons, yet the numbers of professing Christians is decreasing across the Anglophone northern hemisphere? (I mean, I’ve not taken Ireland into account, but I doubt they’re much better.)

According to one of the many sites I’ve linked in the above, some people find it hard to get to church. Other people find the people at church or the preaching or the music or the décor distasteful, I’m pretty sure. I know I often do. But if we’re truly converted to Jesus Christ, shouldn’t we be seeking a community of people whom we can at least put up with and worship with and be encouraged by? Shouldn’t the Holy Spirit at work in us enable us to get over bad preaching, bad Bible translations, hymns with modified words, hymns with weird tunes, badly-tuned pianos, socially-awkward greeters at the door, socially-inept coffee hours? I mean, Jesus Christ is King of the Universe.

Being with people who also love Him should trump all the subjective realities of going to church.

And for a lot of us, it does.

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I enjoyed the sun by the Union Canal and had our first barbecue of the season with a friend from church. She noted that here in the West, Christianity is dying. We live our comfortable lives, have good jobs, go to church, lead morally upright lives, own a lot of stuff, buy a lot of stuff, and die, comfortable with the knowledge that faith in Jesus means we are ‘saved’. But we are not making more Christians.

When I commented that it seems like the theologically conservative churches of Edinburgh are growing — Morningside Baptist (now called Central), Charlotte Chapel, Elim Church, our own St Columba’s and its two church plants, and more, she noted that the only ones that seem to grow through evangelism are the Pentecostals; the evangelicals (such as we Wee Frees) just have a lot of babies.

Fun fact: At St Columba’s Free Church of Scotland, when the time for the kids to leave occurs, about half the sanctuary is emptied, mostly by the kids plus a few volunteers.

She may be onto something.

I do not know what I think, though.

More zeal in more of us? Deeper spiritual lives along with more zeal? Training our whole congregations in the theology and practice of evangelism? Richer theology in our thought lives (this hasn’t helped the Anglo-Catholics)? A greater number of outreach events?

I really do not know. How do you reach a world that actually simply seems not to care anymore? And how do you equip and energise the saints in a culture that is so polite and careful and inward that talking ‘religion’ with friends, colleagues, and strangers is a social no-go?

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4 thoughts on “Christianity must change or die (right?)

  1. I’ve wondered this, me and my wife were talking and felt that Christianity generally today doesn’t offer much of a concrete ‘alternative’ to the society around us. It might seek to sacralise aspects of the culture but even in our language the Christian faith is something you either practice or you don’t. Regardless we’re still largely like everyone else. In this light its seen as one option amongst many but that ultimately it shares the same basic common life as the rest of secular society.

    This is just my hypothesis, I’m a layman, but I imagine a rediscovery of Christianity in the west is in a rediscovery of a new common life. Likewise a rejection of the secular world around us and its love of materiality. It cannot be one option among many. So often we talk about faith in a personal individualised context, maybe we need to change this and start talking about a communal corporate faith which seeks to incorporate all of society.

    • That sounds a bit like the Benedict Option that has been debated recently over in the USA! I agree that we are too often ‘practical atheists’ whose Christian faith is perhaps a fashion accessory but makes no deep impact upon our lives, our friendships, our workplaces, our homes, our families. Deep holiness is what we need. I like to think we need the Gregory Option, not the Benedict Option — a common life, as you say, that envelopes the whole of society and unites the contemplative and active approaches to Christianity.

  2. I think people are getting the help they need in the secular world. Confession is good, but therapists are professionals. There are self-help books, and unlike books by monks who lived hundreds of years ago they are more relatable and based on science.

    I am convinced that despite the low church attendance people are interested in God. I know that the Catholics who have left my church left because it was all just moralism to then. Many Christians are tired of moralism and self-help. They want an encounter with Christ. They are tired of being told they’re bad. People increasingly come from “broken families” and suffer from various mental illnesses. They want compassion not judgment. Finally, the church is seen as having too much privilege. I think there is some truth to that. Historically, Christians have had all the power and they still do in America.

    Thankfully I have encountered Christ in my church otherwise I would stop going to any church and perhaps revert to agnosticism. My brother has. I am convinced this is because he never really experienced Christ. He was always taught the faith as a bunch of rules.

    Conservative Christianity of all forms may be doing well for reasons that have not much to do with the Gospel. People might be looking for theology that confirms their deeply-held and increasingly unpopular political convictions. But there’s no magic recipe. Christians have been successful in the past because the State was on their side. People didn’t voluntary join churches. This is no longer the case. Now people have to choose their religions for themself. Long response but these are my thoughts.

    • I like this point particularly, Fariba: ‘Many Christians are tired of moralism and self-help. They want an encounter with Christ.’ This reminds of something Fr Aidan posted at the Eclectic Orthodoxy several months ago (or at least a year ago?) that our self-help Christianity and moralism and politicised preaching (L and R) are not what anyone is there to encounter. We come to Church to encounter the living, active Person of Christ who died, rose, and lives. Too much preaching has too little to do with that…

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