We are not to be conformed to this world and its ways, and if we are disciples of Christ we are to expect scorn – and worse – from the rulers of this world and their adherents. Does that mean that we are to hide away from the world, perhaps to imitate the Amish, or those monks who withdrew into the wild places? Some do take this view, and some, who stay in the world, cultivate a hostility to it which it reciprocates. Yet if we look at the historical development of the early church, and its growth to a global movement, we see something more interesting than just hermits fleeing, or groups withdrawing (though they are part of the rich picture of Christian responses to the world God has made), we see Paul being ‘everything to everyman’, we see him and the earliest missionaries moving in a society whose values were often antithetical to the ones they had received from the Lord Jesus, and rather than simply denouncing those values, demonstrating by their own example that there were better ways of living a good life than the excesses which characterised pagan society.
In some ways those early Christians had it easier than we do. They were not dealing with a society which had espoused Christian values and then abandoned them. Now, it is as though the remaining Christian groups in the West are like islands where a value system abandoned elsewhere survives: that may be why we often feel embattled and on the defensive; it may also be why much of that wider society thinks there is something odd about us – because by their standards there is. Why will we not embrace their vision of the good life – which amounts to wine women/men and song? They get, from us, denunciations which make no sense to them, and we get from them an uncomprehending scorn, or an indifference: across that divide we ignore each other or quarrel. Within the churches we have those who counsel the folly of changing anything we have received – it is, in the end, the job of those wanting to convert to do so on our terms; and we have those who counsel that changing this, or that, will aid the work of bringing people into the church: both sides seem to agree on only one thing, it is the fault of following the advice of the other which has reduced church attendance, and if only their leaders followed their advice, all would be well. But are we having the right debate about the right issues. Does an absence of bottoms on pews mean people are ceasing to be religious?
Recent work, moving away from the compelling ‘declinist’ narrative (which can become a self-fulfilling pessimistic black hole into which we can fall and get lost), suggests that people may well be finding less institutional ways of expressing their faith:
qualitative and quantitative research over five years involving 10,000 people showed that about a third of those who no longer went to church were no longer christians. “About two-thirds of those who leave retain their faith. … One thing that surprised me was the warmth that people generally expressed about the church. These were not people who were angry or negative about church.”
The decline in Church attendance does not necessarily mean we are on the steep decline secularists (and many Christians, alas) assume. What it may well mean is that institutional churches are not seen as offering people anything. The same research suggests that ‘most people who have left churches have done so after a long period of frustration disappointment and difficulties.” We can respond to this, of course, by simply stating that is their loss, and take the smaller congregations as the sign of a purer, if smaller church, but I doubt that effective evangelism should go to that place first.
The early church offered something its adherents wanted – the good news of Christ – and it did it in a way which drew people in and made them the best evangelists. We offer the same Good News, but not even our own people think that their local church is the best place to experience its effects. Perhaps the binary – ‘stay as we were in the 1950s/change to be like the world now’ (which always means we’re a decade behind trend at best) is a false dichotomy, or at least not a useful way of thinking about what is happening.
If many of those who leave church remain Christian, and if our churches are failing to attract new people, the problem lies in what churches offer – or fail to offer. If we fail to think about that, either because we assume it is the prelude to ‘rock masses’, or because we feel that the ‘rock masses’ we already offer ought to be attractive enough, then we fail to ask questions which need an answer. Assuming that declining attendance at Church means people are abandoning the Christian faith is altogether too pessimistic a conclusion. It prevents us from asking questions about the ways in which institutional churches are failing people – questions those of us in institutional churches may not wish to ask because it first involves wondering what we are doing wrong.
Anyone supposing this question is going to be followed by some pat answers, hasn’t really understood the question: posing it, in prayer, and asking for the help of the Spirit in answering it, is the first step. None of which is to say there are not some things which might be said – and I hope to offer a few suggestions.