The church is facing tough times. Not everywhere. In the second and third worlds, the church is on fire and growing. Young people are involved and being baptized in great numbers. In the first world (ours) the church is struggling. There are some bright spots. But no one in the churches in Western Europe and North America can be very confident.
This lack of confidence affects the current Christian life of local churches at every level of their existence. It causes low attendance, dampens enthusiasm, reduces financial contributions, curtails mission, hampers sound disciplined Christian living, and gives no outsider a positive reason for wanting to be a part of the church or, for that matter, to listen to let alone hear her message.
This diminished Christianity shows up in the church's worship: there is no expectancy of meeting God in worship; there is little warmth or vibrancy. No glory. No sense of the Presence. It shows up in preaching: there is little sound theology and very little fire in the pulpit. It shows up in Christian education: the faith is often taught without being caught. It shows up in administration: what colour the washrooms should be painted often gets greater consideration than matters of faith, morals, and service! It shows up in missions: Christ is put on the shelf in the name of cultural accommodation.
There are reasons for churches thriving or declining. Where there is a perceived human need which humans themselves can't meet, there the church is effective and growing. Where people are satisfied, and especially self-satisfied, there the church makes little headway. Where society believes that it can't by itself answer the big questions of life and death, there the church is able to provide some real insights which are appreciated and cause the church to be taken seriously. Where the community suspects that the church and her members isn't sincere or doesn't mean what she professes, there the church is ignored and isn't able to gain a hearing.
THE IMPACT OF THE PAST
There is a history behind the decline of the mainline Protestant churches. First, for 145 years there has been a perceivable decline of faith in the pulpit. The impact of Darwin, Freud, and Marx undercut the confidence of many preachers. They responded by giving up on the historic Christian faith and replacing traditional preaching with pseudo-psychology and self-help ‘pep talks'. Chaplains in the First World War discovered that the young soldiers at the front couldn't be spiritually prepared for battle because, though they were members of the churches back home, they had no experience of a living God or of salvation. They had been active in their churches, but not in a helpful way. They had been part of youth groups, drama groups, music groups, and sports groups. But they hadn't done much serious study of Scripture. They hadn't learned how to pray. They had made no serious commitment to Jesus Christ. They had been taught something about the faith, but they hadn't caught the faith! The chaplains found little or no spiritual point of contact in the men. The chaplains wrote to the head offices of their churches in Canada outlining the problem, but were ignored. When the war was over they raised the issue again, but were turned aside. The church hierarchy didn't want to hear. Many chaplains became disillusioned and left the ministry. You can read the data for yourself in the published study by Prof. David Marshall entitled "Secularizing the Faith: Canadian Protestant Clergy and the Crisis of Belief 1850-1940" (University of Toronto Press, 1992).
Second, if there was a problem in the pulpit, there was also one in the pews. Lay people were becoming better educated, even in the 19th century. They, too, had to face the implications of Darwin, Freud, and Marx. Social problems among workers led them to question the integrity of the churches. Churches, by nature, are conservative institutions and tend to side with the status quo. Luther himself had advocated violence against the peasants in their economic and political revolt. Clergy in the last century tended to be non-revolutionary too. John Wesley, though a radical in some social policies, e.g. his opposition to slavery, was still a conservative. The working class saw the clergy, for the most part, as standing against them in their pursuit of better conditions in the factories. The churches were not institutions of liberation. The masses stayed away.
At the same time, on the intellectual front. Voltaire and Nietzsche were challenging the Christian faith in the name of liberty. Tension between science and religion confused people's approach to truth. DesCartes introduced what at least appeared to be a subjective criterion of knowledge. "I think, therefore I am." Does this mean that God is only what we conceive him to be? Individual self-confidence began to push God onto the periphery of knowledge and moral behaviour. David Hume appeared to undercut the credibility of the miraculous. People, if they were educated, increasingly had to fight to keep their faith or else keep knowledge and faith in two tightly-sealed separate compartments. Moreover, history more and more came to be replaced by sociology and this often produced an tendentious view of the past. Religion came to be seen in the context of a social pattern of order, assisting the self-preservation of society as society. Religion became a means to an end rather than an end in itself. This meant that religion appeared to be man-made rather than God-given. What was primary was the culture of a particular society. This led to a decline in people's appreciation for God Himself. Some said He couldn't be known anyway (agnosticism), and perhaps wasn't even around to be known (atheism). You can read more about this in Prof. Owen Chadwick's book, "The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century" (Cambridge University Press, 1975, 1990).
Much of this thinking influenced Canadian lay people and clergy. Traditional evangelical doctrines and beliefs became increasingly suspect and were replaced not by a balanced and thoroughly thought-out faith and mission programme but by a wishy-washy faith and a social agenda that was more political than it was theological. Prof. Ramsey Cook, the Canadian historian, points out in his book entitled "The Regenerators" (University of Toronto, 1985), that J.S. Woodsworth and Salem Bland set out to bring the Kingdom of God to earth but succeeded only in producing "the secular city". Prof. Cook may have somewhat overstated his case, but there is no doubt he is onto something here. The impact of "the social gospel" was positive in some aspects but negative in others. It fed and clothed people's bodies, but it did little for their souls. And people can't live humanly unless their souls are also fed. Walter Rauschenbusch, the American thinker behind this movement, realized this. Read his "Christianity and the Social Crisis", especially chapter three. People need the "bread of life" for their souls as well as bread for their stomachs. Unfortunately, the majority of Canadian church leaders ignored this. The result is the virtual demise of the historic gospel in the mainline churches and a growing secularism in both church and state. Of course, a genuine vacuum needs to be filled. Spiritual hunger must be fed. This accounts for the rise, in response to this dilemma in the mainline churches, of numerous evangelical sects and churches. It remains true today that it is not the liberal, but the conservative churches that are growing. Indeed, the very existence of the new conservative churches is evidence that mainline Protestantism has lost most of its theological centre and thereby has lost its appeal to the masses.
"Why The Conservative Churches are Growing" is one of the most important books to appear on the ecclesiastical scene this century. It was written by Dean Kelley of the National Council of Churches in 1972 (Harper & Row). He recognized a quarter of a century ago that people need and respond positively to a church that proclaims the apostolic faith and that exercises a Biblical discipline within its membership. Mainline churches in Canada and the U.S.A. had not been doing this in any consistent way at any time in this century. Far from listening to this warning, the mainline churches on both sides of the border continued to dilute the faith in their pulpits and Sunday schools and to relax moral expectations with respect to personal behaviour. The United Church of Canada followed this route with a vengeance. Theological colleges failed to prepare ministers for a gospel ministry, and General Council began to take a series of decisions in the area of sexual ethics, the understanding of Scripture, and missions that reversed everything the United Church had traditionally believed and implemented. And it is highly likely that there is more to come! The result is a severe decline in membership, a loss of confidence, and a financial dilemma that will only deteriorate further.
The implication of this history is that only in exceptional cases where congregations deliberately choose to buck the trend will there be growth and a relatively happy future. But mapping out a different strategy, marching to the tune of a different drummer, is not easy. In the first place, we are as United Church people disinclined to rock the boat. We are loyal. Loyalty is a marvellous characteristic. But, of course, misplaced loyalty can have its tragic consequences. We can get trapped in a sinking ship. Second, it is not easy to reverse the trend, to create a better climate, to get people interested. We may need to distance ourselves as a congregation from denominational associations and structures. We may need to do things differently. Third, we need to become thoroughly conscious of the literature that exposes the history and causes of the problems facing us and begin to reverse the influences impacting on our own congregation. We can't afford to be ignorant about this. Nor to keep our heads in the sand so far as the solutions are concerned. Old solutions to church growth and vitality won't work. Why not? Because far from being solutions, they are often part of the problem. Remember the comments of Prof. Marshall on the nature of church activities for young people at the turn of the century. The point is that in many cases we are a part of the problem. The main change has to occur within ourselves! If we are not willing to do that, then we might as well concede defeat.
THE NEED OF THE PRESENT
There is in everybody's heart a deep need for God. "Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee", said St. Augustine. People have looked for solutions in many quarters, but to no avail. They have looked within themselves and hoped that personal power, wealth, popularity and beauty might make life meaningful. It hasn't. Rather these possessions add to the responsibilities and temptations of life. No, we find our help and our salvation in God, and in Him alone. This was the discovery of ancient Israel. Or rather, it was revealed to them. And when Israel trusted God and walked in His will and way, then Israel found peace and joy. "The joy of the Lord is your strength", said Nehemiah (8:10). It was this joy the Jesus Christ brought in a profound and incarnate way into the world. He is the Word of God in the flesh (John 1:14), and the Word that He is and brings to the believer is nothing short of joy (John 15:11). And it is also life! "I have come that you may have life, and that you may have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). Abundant life is exactly what people are looking for today. And it is available in Jesus Christ. The third thing that this living Word brings us is peace! "These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). Those who seriously look to and call upon Jesus Christ to meet their needs find that in Him their needs are met.
One of the deepest needs we all face is to get the proper perspective. It is to get our lives sorted out. It is to come to terms with our identity. Who we are, especially in the scheme and setting of time and eternity. It is to come to terms with our origin. Not in relation to our family so much as in the context of humanity. Where did we originate? Where did we come from? Purely scientific answers are not adequate. There is, of course, also the question of purpose. Why are we here? What are we to spend our lives doing? Who are we here to satisfy? Ourselves or God? There is the question of ethics. How should we then live? Are our children being taught at home or at school how to ask this question? It's an important question, and the survival of the world depends on the answer. The final important question is that of destiny, or rather destination. Do we know where we are going? Do we know how to die? Are we aware of what lies beyond death? Are we prepared to face the great issues of life and death? Jesus Christ came into the world to raise and address these questions.
If we have a need for God, and a need to get a perspective on the objective realities of life and death, we also have a pressing subjective need. It is the need for satisfaction. For happiness. We need friendship. We need to belong. We need to succeed, to make progress, even if it is only a small amount of progress in life. We need to feel that we are useful for something. That we are contributing to the existence and development of mankind. That we are making a difference. We can't live without this sense of creative participation. At least, we feel we aren't living properly or in a truly human way without this sense of making a contribution. The point about the gospel is that Jesus Christ came into the world to render our lives meaningful and to help us make a difference in the world.
If we have a need for God, for perspective, for satisfaction, we also have a need for community. As Glenn Tinder has pointed out in his book, "The Political Meaning of Christianity" (University of Louisiana Press, 1989), there is a great difference between a society and community. There is a unity, purpose, and civility common to true community that isn't found in society. Jesus Christ came into the world to turn societies into communities. This is the purpose of the church. To be a catalyst. An agent of change and renewal. Even reformation. Tribalism, such as we are creating today won't do. It tears society and community apart. The emphasis must be on humanity. Only the Son of Man can change this.
The final major need is servanthood. This is not something we rush to join or put into practice. Yet it is crucial to building a peaceful world. Here in Canada, as in other parts of the world, we have so much to be thankful for, yet we are preparing for the division of our country. It doesn't make sense. It's a denial of the Christian doctrine of reconciliation. It's a denial of what made this country; people working side by side to build a dream. Whenever service and co-operation is ignored, people begin to fight among themselves. This is what is happening today. Servanthood is the key to peace and harmony. We can't do without it in our families. We can't do without it in our country or in the world. Jesus said: "I am amongst you as one who serves" (Luke 22:27). We need Him to teach us how to be servants. A sense of servanthood overcomes the arrogance that can cripple a country or a church.
THE HOPE OF THE FUTURE
Check off with me the elements in Matthew 13:44-58 that are the hope of our future as a church.
1. The treasure is right under our feet (vs. 44). It is often hidden, but it needn't be. We can find it. Or sometimes it may find us. Jesus was speaking here of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is not a place, nor even primarily an ethic. It is the presence of God, reigning. Exercising His authority. Sharing His glory. Jesus Christ came to impress upon us that God is living, active, and in charge. As such, He is the solution to our dilemmas. God has come into the world in Jesus Christ to make a difference. Only when He is allowed to reign now in our midst will things be different. Only then will we be different. Only then will the church be different. Such a church is attractive. Such a church will grow automatically. In number, quality, and influence.
2. The price to be paid is total commitment (vs. 46) . The man had to go and sell all that he had to purchase the pearl of great price. Are we fully committed to Christ? Or only half-committed? Until we are fully committed we won't get excited about faith and the church. And until we are excited about spiritual things, no one else will get excited. You can't grow a church that is only half-committed.
3. There needs to be openness (vs. 47) . the parable of the dragnet emphasizes this. The net of the gospel catches all kinds of faith. That is different kinds of people. Are we prepared for that? It may change things after, and require some changes before. But Christ is no respecter of persons. He is "all things to all men" (1 Cor. (9:22). So was St. Paul. Moreover, this openness means also that the gospel is not limited. It has a universal claim. There is one God, not many. There is one Saviour and Lord. No church will grow unless it believes this.
4. There needs to be respect for both the old and the new (vs. 52). Just as Jewish Christians instructed in the Old Testament need to learn the New Testament and Gentile Christians instructed in the gospel needed to learn the law, so we need to recognize that God always has more light and truth to break forth from His Word. We need to put ourselves into the hands of God and be open to His leading. The past, present and future are all important. Old traditions are important, but so are the new traditions we may have to learn. A greater emphasis on the Holy Spirit may be one of the new things we need to develop. So also may a new emphasis on the Wisdom literature in Scripture. These are nuances necessary to growth. Here is the basis of hope.
5. There needs to be a new emphasis on faith(vs 58). Jesus could do no miraculous works in Nazareth because of their lack of faith. There is no hope without faith. Jesus asked: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith upon the earth?" (Luke 18:8). Faith is not a human work, but a divine gift (1 Cor. 12:3). Faith consists of three things: assent, content, and constancy. The Latin words are assensus, cognitio, and fiducia. We normally translate them as commitment, knowledge and faithfulness. What is the level of faith in this church? In you and me? Is it below zero or above it? And if above, how far above?
It is a time to focus on faith and the future. To do that we may have to take stock, an inventory, of our current status. That may tell us where our strengths and weaknesses lie. One thing is sure "Only if the Lord builds the house will it not be in vain" (Psalm 127:1). The glory is under our feet. We need to discover it and get that glory into our hearts and minds and hands.
- Dr. Allen Churchill, Spiritual Director of Allen Churchill Christian Ministries
As broadcast on 27 November 2005 on “Good News in the Morning”