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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Saint of the Week: St. Kentigern (Mungo)

St. Kentigern at the Kelvingrove Museum

My wife and I spent last weekend in Glasgow. All over Glasgow, you will find images and statues of St. Kentigern, as pictured in my photo to the left showing the entrance to the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery (which has some very nice mediaeval armour). St. Kentigern is commonly called by the name “Mungo” (silly as it sounds) which seems to be derived from the Brythonic word for “dear one”.

Dear St. Kentigern was born c. 518 in Fife to a family of local Celtic “nobility.”* He may have been raised in a monastery. It does seem, though, that at age 25, he was present in Glasgow as a missionary. He was welcomed by Roderick Hael, King of Strathclyde, and by 540 was consecrated bishop.  He lived an ascetic lifestyle and converted many people to Christianity through his preaching and holiness of life.

In 553 he was compelled to leave Strathclyde due to anti-Christian opposition.  He spent time in Wales with St. David and founded a monastery while there.  In 573, he was able to return to “Scotland”** after the triumph of Christians at the Battle of Arthuret.  He hurried back to King Roderick’s side with some Welshmen to join him.  He spent his first eight years of his return to Cumbria evangelising Galloway and Cumberland.  In 581 he returned to Glasgow and lived out the rest of his days as bishop of that city.

During this final sojourn in Glasgow, he was paid a visit by St. Columba (my post on him here).  The two Celtic missionaries had a long talk with each other and exchanged pastoral staves as a sign of friendship.  St. Kentigern died in 603 and was buried in Glasgow where he apparently still rests in the cathedral’s crypt.  His feast was this past Thursday, 13 January.

Enough with history, though.  St. Kentigern is well-known for his hagiography, with symbols from his miracles making their way onto the Glasgow coat of arms (as seen in my photo of them on the side of a bridge over the Kelvin).

Out of sheer laziness, I quote from Wikipedia:

Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam

The verses refer to the following:

  • The Bird — Mungo restored life to the pet robin of Saint Serf, which had been killed by some of his fellow classmates, hoping to blame him for its death.
  • The Tree — Mungo had been left in charge of a fire in Saint Serf’s monastery. He fell asleep and the fire went out. Taking branches from a tree, he restarted the fire.
  • The Bell — the bell is thought to have been brought by Mungo from Rome. It was said to have been used in services and to mourn the deceased. The original bell no longer exists, and a replacement, created in the 1640s, is now on display in Glasgow.
  • The Fish — refers to the story about Queen Languoreth of Strathclyde who was suspected of infidelity by her husband. King Riderch demanded to see her ring, which he claimed she had given to her lover. In reality the King had thrown it into the River Clyde. Faced with execution she appealed for help to Mungo, who ordered a messenger to catch a fish in the river. On opening the fish, the ring was miraculously found inside, which allowed the Queen to clear her name. (This story may be confused with an almost identical one concerning King Maelgwn of Gwynedd and Saint Asaph.)

Thus St. Kentigern.  His real legacy is the Christian faith that took hold in Glasgow and other parts of western Scotland and flourished for centuries, although it seems to be in a bad state just now.  Perhaps we need a new St. Kentigern, another dear Mungo, to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people of Scotland.

*I do not deny their nobility, just our postmodern, post-Germanic-feudal understanding of what Celtic nobility would have been.

**Not yet called Scotland; too few Irish Scots.  Called variously Cumbria, Caledonia, Alba.