The Challenge of Falling Church Membership

For followers of mainline religion there is a growing dark cloud on the horizon. In most modern Western communities there is a visible decline in support for the Church. Aging congregations, declining numbers who register as Christian in the census returns, and fewer regular attendees at Sunday worship send a clear message that organized religion has become increasing irrelevant for many in most Western populations. According to Wikipedia, Church attendance in advanced industrial societies is in gradual general decline with people shifting from weekly to monthly or spasmodic holiday attendance. Sociologists attribute this trend to several reasons, starting from a simple boredom during services and lack of motivation, to generational incompatibility of belief systems with the social changes attributed to modernity. Putting it bluntly, there is now more on offer on a Sunday. Again from Wikipedia, research across 65 different nations showed that out of 20 advanced industrial countries – 16 demonstrated a declining rate of monthly church attendance.

It would be tempting to expect the move away from Church is mirrored by a move towards atheism or agnosticism for those disenchanted by Church, yet for the most part, the surveys tend not to support that theory. For example although even if for many religion is simply being edged out by modern secular life styles and thought patterns, for a surprisingly large percentage of the population, spirituality is frequently cited as a modern alternative to organised religion. Embarrassingly, for Church leadership, those searching for spiritual meaning no longer see the Church as the only place to find answers.

One Churchman, Fr Ronald Rolheiser from the Oblate School of Theology in Texas claims that the Churches must face their fair share of the blame for this situation. In his article which he entitled ‘Fewer people are going to Church – who is to blame?’ Fr Ronald puts it this way: “Secularity is, no doubt, partly to blame, but so too are the churches. There’s an axiom that says: All atheism is a parasite off bad theism. That logic also holds regarding attitudes towards the Church: Bad attitudes towards the Church feed off bad Church practices.”

I would like to suggest that at least part of the problem is tied up with the age old conservative attitudes and beliefs. Two or three centuries back, few in society were highly educated. Typically separate communities were stable and relatively uniform and Church assumptions and attitudes were rarely challenged. In the eighteenth and in part the nineteenth century the educated clergy were able to fall back on traditions of unchallenged Church authority. Yet in recent times, as the stresses and strains of society have multiplied and diversified, standard Church practice and answers to problems seem designed for a previous age. Even the answers to the questions posed in the catechisms have become largely irrelevant because these aren’t seen as the most pressing questions faced in the real world.

We expect our children to learn critical thinking at school, testing claims against evidence. Making religious claims about miracles to modern students is a hard sell when they expect that the laws of nature will always be followed, that disease is caused by microorganisms, that biology still applies despite claims of Virgin Birth or resurrection and that atoms may rearrange but not mysteriously multiply even to make loaves and fishes. But there is a deeper issue. Assuming the Church authority has to be accepted without question is all very well but has no relevance if the Church is seen as no longer giving priority to the critical problems of the modern world and more importantly not seen to be radiating compassion in answer to the critical needs.

I know that we aren’t supposed to notice deficiencies in the teaching of Jesus or in the teaching of the gospels and letters of the New Testament but perhaps the irrelevance of some of the teaching is simply that many of the chosen illustrations were simply for a different society and a different age.

My own tentative part answer is that we should be more scientific about seeking to find what is working and what is not working. If the Church claims to be meeting fundamental needs for individuals and society as a whole, very well then, let us step back and ask ourselves how well we are doing.

The answers are likely to be very uneven. Some needs are well met by many Churches. Supportive companionship, a feeling of belonging to a community and even a belief of hope for the future are still encountered in many Churches.

When it comes to serious issues facing the wider community, the report card has some gaps.

Even where Christian ideals are clearly relevant: care for the underprivileged, forgiving the enemy, being peacemakers, working for justice and caring for God’s creation, these may be acknowledged but for the most part, these are issues where in most situations the Church takes a very secondary role. If we want to change this situation we only have ourselves to turn to. We are the Church. I can’t give a formula for meeting needs because it seems to me that each group of Christians have to make their own decisions because, after all, it is they who have to face the problems.

This morning I was told of a minister in a neighboring suburb who called a meeting yesterday to lament his falling Church roll and to call his people to the task of evangelism. Calling people to follow may well be the first step, but I could not help wonder whether more attention needs to go to the tasks of the kingdom.

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