Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby has for decades been documenting the downward trend of attendance among churches in Canada that identify as ‘Christian’1. Religious ‘affiliation’ has not translated into personal involvement, nor is the spiritual life of congregations still at the front of the line. It is way back in queue – behind ‘felt needs’ and social mores. Pluralism and choice have secularized churches which are now emptying at a faster rate than ever before. Very few churches remain in the world and not of the world. As the differences between church and non-church disappears, so do the the reasons for ‘staying in’.
More than fifty years ago, philosopher Francis Schaeffer observed that the populations of formerly ‘Christian’ countries now valued personal peace and prosperity above everything else. A half century later, ‘the chickens have come home to roost’.
We live in a prosperous country that is at peace with itself, but not with God. The generation of ‘fox-hole Christians’ is almost gone along with survivors of the crash of 29 and the ‘hungry thirtys”. God is not a ‘felt need’. Our prosperity is killing us.
When Christian writers used to discuss ‘a crisis of faith’ they usually referred to a Christian’s struggle with paradoxical aspects of our faith and practice. But the more recent crisis of faith is a crisis of no-faith at all. No faith in God the creator. No faith in God’s Son and our saviour. No faith in the spiritual nature of people made in the image of God and no faith in the spiritual realm of angels and demons.
An increasing number of our most recent generations – our own children included – see the world through a monochromatic lens. Reality has been reduced to the physical. The generation that once “Shrunk the Kids”, has also “shrunk the world”. And in the much reduced world of materialism, it is every person for themselves. It is a world where ‘might makes right’, ‘only the strong survive’ and ‘every person is a law unto themselves’. And it is in that world and for that world that people are leaving the church.
Recently I read an article in The Washington Post that was referred to me. It was written by a now middle aged man who was raised in a church that he no longer attends. He tries to explain his departure and what it is that he still longs for. In the meantime, he no longer attends any church. He thinks that all religions are pretty much the same and that their main contribution is to encourage higher values while ensuring that no one is alone. He is very much at the centre of his own world. When he takes the measure of churches and religious beliefs he judges them by his own opinions. I re-read the article looking for even a single Biblical passage. There were none.
When he is not self-referential, he compares his values to those of political parties and activist groups. In a word, he is his own God. He refuses to believe in any god and certainly not one who sends people to hell, who condemns sexual immorality or rebellion against Himself. His god is fully inclusive, accepting all and condemning no one. In his world, sin does not exist nor does the need for salvation.
And while his experience may not be typical, there were several things that caught my attention.
In his own words, he misses what he once had. He never did really believe in God. He never believed that Jesus was the Son of God or that he rose from the grave. Therefore, what he misses are the social aspects of a church and he would like to have those again, but free and clear of doctrines and beliefs. This is what he still longs for…though he admits that he could probably benefit almost as much by joining a club or attending a ‘happy hour’. One is left with the impression that were he to join a church, it would need to have all of the programs and services of a first class country club.
Failing that, if he were to make up his own church it would be…a church made up of ‘nones’ – former church people with no particular theological convictions. Here is his reasoning:
“Many Americans, including me, were once part of churches that were essential parts of our lives. It’s strange to me that America, particularly its left-leaning cohort, is abandoning this institution, as opposed to reinventing to align with our 2023 values. I can easily imagine a “church for the nones.” (It would need a more appealing name.) Start the service with songs with positive messages. Have children do a reading to the entire congregation and then go to a separate kids’ service. Reserve time when church members can tell the congregation about their highs and lows from the previous week. Listen as the pastor gives a sermon on tolerance or some other universal value, while briefly touching on whatever issues are in the news that week. A few more songs. The end. An occasional post-church brunch. During the week, there would be activities, particularly ones in which parents could take their kids and civic-minded members could volunteer for good causes in the community. (Later in the text he observes) – “Theologically, I’m comfortable being a none. But socially, I feel a bit lost.”2
What he would like is ‘a reinvented church that aligns with 2023 values’. It would not gather to worship or to draw near to God. It would hear only positive messages, share personal concerns and encourage universal values. He wants a church to fill the church-shaped hole in his life that is empty. What he refuses to recognize is the ‘God-shaped hole’ that has never been filled. He was never truly a part of the church that he left.
There remains within each and every soul – the image of God that longs for the one who put it there. Those who now claim no religious affiliation at all, still miss what they once had. They miss the fellowship of kindred spirits. They miss the solidarity of shared values. They may even miss the hope for something more enduring than a life that is passing them by. They miss it – but not yet enough to come back. For them, the question is…what would I be coming back to?
It seems to me (my opinion) that what we are seeing as a generational disconnect may actually be a theological one. That when our children walk away from the church, it may be that at least some were never truly convinced or convicted in the first place. They were loved and accepted, socialized and served but never did really love God in return or accept Him as both saviour and lord. They were never matured in the faith nor had they experienced a depth of theological understanding that might have changed their souls forever.
Building a gymnasium with a hot tub and weight room will not help. It may actually be a symptom of the problem. What our young people cannot get any place else is spiritual preparation for life in a world that is hostile to faith. “…Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph 6:12).
What might happen if we reinvested time and energy into educating young souls and strengthening spirits – fortifying them against the onslaught to come? What if we helped them to mature, so that the faith of their fathers became their own? What might happen if we raised expectations – engaging them in service and evangelism before they left home? What if they spent time in university instilling faith in others instead of losing their own? And what if they were more like shepherds instead of sheep?
But – our recently departed are still not back…nor will they come back unless we offer that which the world cannot. For those who were never truly ‘converted’, we may need to go back to the basics. Getting an audience with those who think that they know what you are going to say will take both wisdom and patience. Yet we do so, knowing that there is salvation only for those who are ‘in’ Christ Jesus.
May we renew our confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ for it is ‘the power of God unto salvation to all who believe’. May we call our recently departed back to the Lord and back to his word. May we preach the Lord and not ourselves. Churches will always fail and should, if they preach themselves for when we do, we help the god of this world who is blinding the eyes of the unbelieving.
The apostle Paul wrote: Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart, but we have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in trickery nor distorting the word of God, but by the open proclamation of the truth commending ourselves to every person’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they will not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants on account of Jesus” (2nd Cor. 4:1-5)
The scriptures warn that it is hard, even bordering on impossible to restore to faith those who having left it are thereby innoculated against it. (Heb 6:4-8). It is hard to soften hardened hearts and to restore sight to those who do not want to see. But hard is not same thing as impossible. And we may be assured that “whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (Jas 5:20)
Personal peace and prosperity will not survive death. But it is at that exact moment, that peace with God and spiritual prosperity take on eternal dimensions. Perhaps in the wisdom of God the choice between these is easier, when the message is not.
1 “It’s as if a fire of secularization has devastated much of what, through the early 1960s, was a flourishing religious forest” (Resilient Gods: Being Pro-Religious, Low Religious, or No Religious in Canada, by Reginald Bibby, UBC Press, 2017)
Note: a 2019 article by Pew Research identifies these trends in the United States of America as nation-wide. Link: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/