August 2012:When the world turns away

Why are so many churches empty today? Not being relevant, using old music, or meeting in old buildings rather than in cafes are not the real answer. Perhaps there is a deeper process of change going on.*

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Anyone who has significant life experience knows that we change over time. Old ways and answers become inadequate. Our attitudes and values are affected by the things that happen to us, and even by the simple passage of time. If we are able to reflect on what has happened, we are often able to learn new ways of being ourselves, for the better. Left experienced but unexamined, we might be changed for the worse by our experiences, sometimes unnoticed by ourselves but observed by others.

Over longer periods of time, we notice phases or stages in our lives: childhood, adolescence, various periods of adulthood. We generally value things differently in each stage. For example, as a child, everything is magical; a teenager might value novelty and group belonging; an adult enjoys independence; and an elderly person often desires stability.

We go through similar stages in matters of faith, too. In the face of tragedy or challenge we might find that our younger, simpler faith no longer satisfies. Some turn away from faith altogether; others persist and break through to a deeper understanding and experience of faith. Of those who turn away, a sense of loss or of 'something missing' can develop, guiding us eventually to a breakthrough to a different kind or quality of faith.

Furthermore, these stages of faith apply to groups, nations and civilisations as well as to individuals. The group's stage is simply that of the majority of its members. Those who are at different stages will feel left out in one way or another. How the group treats the 'left out' will vary. Some groups deliberately discourage development beyond the group norm, so producing exiles or martyrs.

Today, general attitudes and our education system encourage questioning and rational analysis. There is little official encouragement in today's Western World to explore aspects of our human nature such as spirituality and the sense of connectedness. It is as if, as a civilisation, we have turned away from matters of faith, just as an individual might. The result is a civilisation that tends to value people as 'things' that can be discarded rather than as 'beings' needing to be related to; it ignores our connectedness, does not value collective faith, and discards the concept of God. As an outcome of all this, the majority of people do not discover the benefit of faith-related activities such as attending church: they are told that it conveys nothing that they desire. If they do find themselves in church, they often struggle to fit in, and become exiles. And so, churches are increasingly empty.

The situation is not without hope, however!Just because people do not attend church does not mean that the Holy Spirit is idle! We should not confuse 'the Church' with 'The Kingdom of God'. There is an increasing voice speaking for those who notice 'something missing' in Western Civilisation. This is the voice of people who might have experienced their own loss of faith, and then its subsequent rediscovery in a new, re-imagined form. They are perhaps the nucleus of the next stage of faith of our civilisation, calling us all to wholeness, to re-connect with our spiritual nature, and with God, but from a new perspective. It will take a while to make a difference, and in the mean time, the new kind of church these people embody will look scarily different to the rest of us, hanging on to the shrinking church-as-it-was. But so did what became the Reformation, as seen by the existing church of the time! And so did the Stone-Campbell movement, which gave rise to the Churches of Christ.

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The Spirit of God is still at work when people stay away from church, and it is not our role to try to limit that work. As the angel said to Mary, and indeed most Biblical angels to the human(s) perceiving them as they announced change, "Do not be afraid!"


* This reflection arises from my unreliable memory of writings about stages in spiritual development by several people, includingBruce Sanguin, Paul R. Smith, Ken Wilber, and, going back further,James Fowler. It is necessarily a gross simplification of the situation. I don't think God changes; but I do think our very limited understanding and appreciation of God, existence, the Gospel and ourselves should grow. Indeed, I find evidencein the Bible as well as other places, that it has changed many times over the centuries.

Parkdale Church of Christ 2012-18 —A community of faith, hope and compassion.