Despairing about decline? Think yeast

by
17 March 2017

Churches need to relevant and different, committed to justice but warm-hearted, suggests Robert Beaken

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WHEN he heard that I was thinking about ordination, in the 1980s, the Christian sociologist Leslie Paul in­­vited me for coffee. He wanted to explain to me that levels of church­going depend on complex socio­logical factors. He had known many good priests, he said, who had be­­come ill or depressed when, despite their best endeavours, people did not come to church. They beat themselves up about it, although it was not their fault.

I remembered Leslie’s words when I found myself discussing Lent and Easter with colleagues. We had all noticed that Mothering Sunday no longer attracted the large con­gregations it once did: many parish­ioners now spent the day tak­ing their children to have lunch with grandparents. And yet, because the crucifixion and resurrection are at the centre of Christianity, we are all still hoping for large congregations in Holy Week and Easter.

The decline in church attendance in England, which accelerated in the 1960s, might be ascribed to various features, including: the view that all religions are saying the same thing; the belief that you can be “spiritual” without being “religious”; the growth of materialism; the belief that science has vanquished religion; some aspects of multiculturalism, feminism, and the sexual revolution; clerical sexual scandals; the decline of marriage; sports and other activ­ities on Sunday mornings; the disappearance of religious assemblies from many schools; and the sheer busyness of so many people’s lives.

Many thoughtful and prayerful Christian men and women have worked for years to find a response that works, but there is no magic bullet (Features, 3 July 2015). This phenomenon is so large and multi­faceted that the Church’s room for action is restricted.

 

THERE have been two main reac­tions among Christians to the de­­cline. The first has been to seek to make the Church “relevant” to the lives of contemporary people. This trend has its intellectual origins in early-20th-century Modernism, which sought to remodel or mod­ernise Christianity to accommodate an understanding of contemporary thought and needs, for example by “demythologising” the miraculous in the Gospels.

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Contemporary proponents of “relevance” seek to find God in the lives of non-churchgoers — which is laudable — and also to reformulate Christian beliefs and practices to make it easier for these men and women to come to church.

The trouble is that this has not proved spectacularly successful. If you make the Church too much like the world outside, non-churchgoers may ask themselves: “Why bother?”

To try to make Christianity relev­ant by seeking an accommodation with some of the causes of church decline may result in being unfaith­ful to the gospel. For example, I would not want to make Chris­tianity relevant to a world-view that ac­­cepted sexual or economic exploita­tion. If the Church has been doing its job properly, it has always been out of step with the society around it, because its values are those of the Kingdom of God.

The second reaction to decline has been to seek withdrawal from contemporary society, its tempta­tions and misplaced values. There is precedent for this in the lives of the Desert Fathers, St Benedict, St Fran­cis of Assisi, and others. Pope Bene­dict XVI once said that we might one day need a smaller but purer Church.

I have a certain sympathy with this idea, and yet I would advise caution. England is littered with former chapels of Nonconformists who tried to live such a withdrawn and purer Christian lifestyle, but eventually faded away. There is a danger that this approach may lead to a false traditionalism, which looks for inspiration through rose-tinted spectacles at a past that never quite existed. Equally, it may lead to a Christian exclusiveness. And I am reminded of the adage that the Church is a lifeboat for sinners, not a luxury liner for saints.

To be fair, the Church has histor­ically always been shaped to some extent by the society in which it is placed, and a pinch of relevance and of withdrawal from contemporary society are probably occasionally useful correctives; but they will not support many of the more extravag­ant hopes pinned on them.

 

DESPITE the problems facing Christianity in 2017, I remain full of hope. If the Church of England has many difficulties to contend with, it also has many good points, and it contains many wonderful and inspiring men and women. And, on a most basic level, Jesus is still the Son of God who rose on the third day.

Throughout its history, the Church has always sought to estab­lish connections with the society in which it is placed, and to share its faith in changing circumstances, using a variety of different means. The Gospels were originally com­piled as tools to spread Christianity. It is important for Christians to try to understand contemporary society and culture, and to use the latest methods of communication to spread the faith. But we also need to recognise that sociology and gim­micks will never be enough.

We cannot share what we do not possess; so I suggest that we need to start with ourselves and our own Christian faith. Bishop Edward King, confronting the beginnings of church decline in the late 19th cen­tury, said that what was needed was more prayer, self-sacrifice, generos­ity, love, and faith in existing con­gregations. When people entered a church for the first time, they needed to know that they were somewhere special and different.

To this, I would add that Chris­tians must be concerned for justice, and practically compassionate to­wards the sorrows in so many people’s lives. Faith is caught from other people. A kind sentence or a generous deed done by a Christian may prove to be life-changing in its effect.

Then there are practical things we can all do when people summon up their courage to come to church for the first time, such as making them feel welcome (without going over the top), helping them find the right page in the service book, refraining from complaining if their child is disruptive, and talking to them after the service.

In a more secular and ever-changing English society, the Church is increasingly going to have to be more consciously counter-cultural (something that I and many others will find challenging), with a warm heart and fuzzy edges rather than hard ones, so that people find it easy to slip in. We must be both leaven in the lump, and also a light set upon a hill.

 

The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Great and Little Bardfield in Essex.

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