The dilemma for Christians today

We all have dilemmas - so what is new! But it does seem to me that Christians today have a peculiar dilemma which is worth investigating a little.  The dilemma arises from the indifference of the general population to religion - a population that is, at the same time, deeply interested in spirituality. Our Christian faith combines belief in God with spirituality - yet most people seemed totally turned off by the churches. How is this to be explained and what can be done about it - if anything!

An explanation for the current disinterest is not really far to seek - the whole post modern atmosphere of society today and the move of  a better educated population from old form worship (the hymn prayer hymn sermon sandwich) is understandable. In a time of a hundred television channels being available at the touch of a button, it is hardly surprising that the religious thoughts and concepts of a cleric or religious layman do not grip the average hearer. And lets be quite honest about it - the thoughts of many speakers from the pulpit do have be endured rather then enjoyed.

So we have to accept that the old forms of worship, which have served us all so well for so long, may now need drastic revision. They just won’t do any longer. Good Christians can subject themselves to such discourses, and they can find some benefit in them no doubt. But as a way of interesting and challenging newcomers they just don’t work.

There are many other factors to be explored in a serious examination of the reasons why the general population have turned off the churches. But we are not going to explore them in this article. Suffice to recognise the fact that modern day man and woman do not want to come in church and go through the form of worship prevalent in so many of them. They are bored with the whole approach. They feel it is unreal and they are seeking reality.

So we have to accept the fact and then ask - what is to be done about it? 

That is a far more difficult subject to explore. Difficult because any answer requires an amalgam of things to happen- not only in the form of worship, but also in the attitude of the those worshipping. In fact it is becoming obvious that it needs a new approach to the whole subject. And the burning question - which we will address later - is whether and how Christians in Britain today can achieve such a new approach.

Let me digress for a moment to mention the Conservative Party. They fought the recent election battle for seats in the new Parliament - and they improved their position, but they came nowhere near really threatening the position of the Labour Party. Has the record of what has happened to them got any lessons to teach the churches? I think it has.

Many - most? - of the Conservative Members of Parliament now recognize that there needs to be a radical new approach adopted by their party. The image of the old Conservative Party clung to them like a shroud throughout the election. And what do I think of when I want to describe this old attitude ? I think of their approach to gay people. They have had to completely reverse their attitude to homosexuality. Why has that been so important and why do I choose it as typifying their need for change? Because their condemnation of homosexuality - or at least their unwillingness to endorse it -  spoke volumes to everyone about their attitude to life - and to people - in general. They have now revised their approach and maybe the general public are more prepared to accept that the Conservatives are truly open to accept all people whatever their colour, gender, or sexuality.

Now we come to the churches - and here we are still light years away from even the old Conservatives position. The churches still exhibit an exclusivity that shuts out gay people. Archbishop Akinola has said that the Anglican Church in Nigeria ‘welcomes gay people and calls them to repentance’. What sort of welcome is that? Come in, but you are not acceptable to us as you are - only if you repent and change your ways can we fully accept you. That in effect is what he is saying. No gay person in his right mind would even consider going inside the doors of one of his churches.

Unfortunately many English churches adopt the same approach. We welcome you - provided you totally change and repent.

There was a programme on television this week which explored what it called ‘middle sex’. In ninety minutes they showed that a significant number of human being are born gay. In all cultures, throughout the world, such people have their place. Sometimes they have an operation to effect gender change, sometimes not. They are often pushed to the margins of society by ‘respectable people’.  This demonstrates that homosexuality exists as a normal occurrence in human society, but that some societies are not yet prepared to accept it as normal. Society often penalizes gay people because it cannot accept or cope with there being more than two rigid boxes, one marked male and the other female. Once you start to open up to diversity - such as homosexuality or inter sex (where the genitalia is ambiguous) - some heterosexual people feel threatened.

The television programme made the interesting suggestion that some of those people who feel threatened may feel this way because they are unsure of their own sexuality. They gave details of tests which seemed to confirm this.

So one fairly certain reason for the drift (or should we call it a gallop in view of the speed?) away from the churches is that there is closed thinking about a number of subjects - as shown particularly by the attitude of some churches to gay people.

In other words we are in a period of rapid transition in society and the churches have failed to re-evaluate their own views and attitudes. They have failed to adjust to new knowledge and information.

So the dilemma with which we started - the turning away from the churches by the vast majority of the population - may be caused, largely, by a revulsion of the general populace from the closed thinking by Christians.

Before we look how this dilemma might be tackled, we perhaps need to examine the other interesting phenomenon which is widely accepted as true of the general population today. This is that there is a big increase of interest among people generally in spirituality. There is surely no need to adduce the evidence. It can be seen in any newspaper, any review of television programmes, and analysis of alternatives medicines. 

The huge interest generated by the recent television programme where five men went into a monastery for forty days and forty nights, and the effect this had on them, has been the subject of comment throughout the press.

So on the one hand we have a huge upswing in interest in things spiritual and on the other a huge swing away from the churches.  Only when that is fully recognized and taken in to our thinking can we even begin to understand the magnitude of the change required of us as Christians in Britain today.

The dilemma is rooted in the failure of modern Christians to keep up to date. We have for many decades just sat back, thinking that if we ‘evangelize’ and ‘serve’ then we have done all that is required of us by the Gospel. Not so!  We are also required to not only preserve the timeless truths we hold, but also to keep our outlook up to date and to keep our approach to our own generation current with their thinking. By that I mean that we have to constantly adjust our inherited religious ideas and our  worship practices to keep in line with where the Spirit would take us. And one thing he always wants is that we take account of new knowledge and new understanding. Especially about the nature of humanity.

I heard recently of how, two or three  hundred years ago, a vicar of a church conducted the official weighing of a supposed witch against the weight of a bible. I suppose it was one of those large and heavy bibles beloved of churches!  I gather she outweighed the bible and therefore was spared further torment. She was deemed not to be a witch! That was superstition I hear you say! Yes, it was. But do you think we do not have our superstitions these days too? What about Christians saying that gay people are possessed by the devil - which various divines have done in the very recent past?

Our thinking, as Christians, must be kept rigorously up to date. We must take into account the latest understanding of humanity - including sexuality - and the latest new knowledge derived from archaeology in the Holy Land, and the latest evidence from cosmological research. We have to keep pace with modern thinking in every field or we will be left behind and will find the general population drifting away from us.

That then is the dilemma facing the churches today. They are talking a different language from that used by everyone else. We are out of date. And stuck in our old ways.

The Church is at last recognizing the problem. A recent report suggested that the answer is not to tinker with the edges of the problem (times of services, having coffee afterwards and suchlike) but rather to explore new ways of doing church. What does that mean?

New ways of doing church?  Well, at least we can be sure that does not mean tinkering with the usual modern day service. We have been doing that for many decades - it doesn’t solve the problem of the missing millions.

What is suggested is that we ditch the idea of Christians sitting in serried ranks (or even in a circle!) on a Sunday having the usual type of service. Instead what is suggested is that some of us go out to meet with those who would never darken our doorsteps otherwise. Maybe meet them in the pub. Maybe over a meal somewhere - perhaps in someone’s house. In other words, we go out to ‘outsiders’ not in an effort to draw them in to our usual services, but recognizing that in the very meeting we create with them we are ‘church’. The forms all this will take are as varied as there are different people doing it.

Needless to say any such venturing out will have to be on the basis that we are inclusive of everybody. That does not mean we ditch our standards and guidelines. It does mean that we completely rid ourselves of any element of judgement, and show the warm welcoming love of Christ to all we meet - especially those who would never go near a church.

Such a change would call for a real change in attitude for many Christians - especially those who cling to moral rectitude as an essential badge of their Christianity. Will the church be up to it? Or will the established churches have to wither away until they are a small and vital remnant and some of them disappear into history altogether?

Of course there will always be a few churches that carry on in the same old way, preserving the traditions for the sake of a faithful core of the faithful. And some of these churches and movements will appear highly successful, with increasing numbers. And from time to time there will be the upswings (and subsequent downswings) of popular movements - maybe even ‘revivals of a sort. But if Britain is to be evangelized in any deep ongoing way there will have to be an open inclusivity and a meeting people on their own ground. I don’t think that Christians generally are ready yet to accept that. Where Christians are trying to do this - and many are just withdrawing into their organization - they have the idea that one really good heave will get the missing millions back. It won’t - they have gone for good. We are in a postmodern world and we have to rethink our whole approach to those around us. Thank God that he is in charge and that the future of the church is safe in his hands. He knows the way he taketh. Let’s walk with him.

Tony Cross

July 2005


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