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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Where has devotion gone? What happens if you cut Sunday church?

All Saints Anglican Church
All Saints’ Anglican Church, Rome (my photo)

I posted recently some thoughts inspired by Franciscan devotional art, where I observed that in these images the saint, the focus of the viewer’s gaze, was focussed on Christ, thus drawing us back to the reality that all Christians need to keep in our minds: Where is Jesus? Where is our focus in life?

In a follow-up to this post, I discussed three central facets of evangelical devotion that so many of us trot out time and again and so rarely barely even do let alone do well — go to church weekly, read the Bible daily, and pray daily. This was followed up by a post about ways to weave Christ the Saviour into daily life without adding time to the routine.

These latter two posts were inspired by a comment by a friend on Facebook regarding the Franciscan post that our lives are so very different now than they used to be. Given that I’ve been ever-so-fond of Franciscans since the long-gone days of regular acquaintance with this friend, I imagine that it is the question of focussing life on Christ that has changed on my friend’s part.

Not being brave enough to ask where, when, and how this friend’s focus went away from Christ the Saviour of the human race, I just started thinking about ways we can cultivate this focus in our own lives. And I also wondered what sorts of omissions start the cracks in our daily routine that grow into fissures such that ‘real life’ — marriage, kids, work, household, money, neighbours, civic duty, shopping, family, garden — crowds out our devotion to the Incarnate God Who made Himself manifest to us in spectacular fashion 2000 years ago and is readily available to us anywhere, whether digging in a garden, washing a squirmy child, or kneeling before a crucifix.

And when I think about these concerns, my thoughts drift outward to other friends, former bulwarks of youth ministry or camp ministry or high school Christian groups or uni Christian groups, some of whom are not church attenders, see no relevance in the Trinity, no longer read Scripture regularly, find it more engaging to question everything than to rest comfortable in anything, list their religion on Facebook (if at all) as agnostic or atheist — or other friends who seem to be orthodox in every way save, say, shacking up, or conservatives who have taken a liberal stance on hot-button issues in today’s culture, and on and on and on.

My father, and Anglican priest, said that some people (not all, mind you) move these directions — away from Christ entirely or simply into liberal beliefs and lifestyles — because of failing to attend to times of personal devotion. These times can be hard to maintain. I go through spells both of forgetting as well as not ‘enjoying’ it one bit if I do get around to it.

This blog is partly here to help us rediscover ancient/mediaeval/less popular paths that God can use to revitalise our devotional lives — if anyone cares to read or take heed.

Alongside these daily times of devotion to God which are to be guarded no matter how dry they may be at times, there is Sunday.

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday.

Where you go to a church or house church and sit with a bunch of phonies who sing bad music and do the same darn thing over and over again and to whom you never reveal your deepest doubts and concerns because they’ll just laugh it off or chew you out. Where you listen to the same poor preacher week after week. Where the same good preacher succeeds in offending time and again. Where you drift from church to church seeking somewhere with the right orthodoxy, the right music, the right community, the right preaching for you. And it never fits.

I mean, church on Sunday can be intolerably awkward.

So you stop going. Stop engaging.

From there, a once burning coal is taken from the fire and starts cool, dims, and turns black and cold.

The Bible verse, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone,’ can be taken beyond its specific context to mean that it is not good for human persons to be alone. We thrive in community of one sort or another, to one degree or another, usually, even introverts like me.

Imagine cutting out Sunday morning/evening/whenever as well as prayer and Bible reading.

It strikes me that most of the time, such activity would be fatal for the spiritual life.

But these are just my own thoughts drawn from my own experience of church-going and the ups and downs of devotional life. Not sure if I’m brave enough to seek out the truth from my friends …