Probably the main cause of the decline in organised religion in Western culture today is the lack of passionate conviction. Christian believers live good lives in accordance with their principles. Many of them are active in their concern about the problems of the world. Most charities, and many campaigns for peace and justice locally and globally, would be much weaker if it were not for the participation of Christian church members. But Christians share these concerns with many other people of goodwill who do not necessarily profess a religious faith. Christians with a social conscience are part of the wider community of liberal humanitarian people doing what they can to build a better world. What they are lacking is a passionate belief in the Christian gospel and an enthusiasm to propagate it.
In the past, faith was literally a matter of life and death. The bitter arguments between Catholics and Protestants, Anglicans and Nonconformists, Baptists and those who baptised infants, happened because people believed there was a heaven and a hell after death, and having the right beliefs was the condition of going to one and avoiding the other. Many of our Nonconformist chapels were built by poor people at their own expense as places for preaching what they were convinced was the one true gospel, studying the Bible, and praying earnestly for the salvation of others.
Later generations were brought up in the beliefs of their denomination and carried on the tradition out of a sense of duty to their parents, but with rather less passion. Going to church or chapel became something you did because it was part of the culture – it was the thing to do on Sundays.
In the twentieth century the struggle of the working classes against exploitation – often resisted by church leaders – and the traumatic experience of the First World War created a new generation with a different outlook on the world and often a cynical attitude towards the churches and the Christian faith. At the same time, new developments like train and motor travel, the cinema, television and so on meant that there were many things more attractive than going to church on Sunday.
And so those who still go to church regularly often see themselves as struggling to hold onto a dying tradition. They are reluctant to talk too much about their faith with people outside the churches because they are all too aware of the bad image of Christianity generated by the faults and mistakes of the past. Also, in the more multi-cultural society of today they want to show respect for other people’s faith rather than push Christianity as the only truth.
There are minority churches that flourish and grow, both here and even more in other parts of the world. They are mostly charismatic, passionate, unashamedly evangelistic, and certain of their faith. However, their biblical fundamentalism is a problem for most people in today’s educated society, and their strictly conservative moral attitudes, especially on sexuality, are exclusive, judgmental, and often downright cruel.
There are of course many churches that do not preach fundamentalism, that are at ease with science and rational thinking, that allow questions to be asked; churches that welcome all kinds of people without expecting them to give up their culture or their sexuality; churches that see very clearly the social and political implications of the teaching of Jesus. Some of these churches openly declare themselves as ‘inclusive’ or ‘liberal’, but many do not. In many if not most of the mainline traditional churches, people have liberal attitudes in practice but avoid being too outspoken for fear of causing offence to ‘simple’ believers. Often there has been a conspiracy of silence between the clergy and the laity. Ministers hold back from saying things they think might upset their congregation, and meanwhile members of the congregation are afraid to question things in case they upset the minister! In many churches the only interaction between clergy and laity is that the minister stands in the pulpit and preaches while the congregation sits quietly and listens. Often the sort of forum in which questions can be asked does not exist, and people keep their doubts to themselves. In this kind of situation is it any wonder that churches are ineffective and unattractive?
Even when liberals come out into the open and express themselves, the things they say tend mostly to be negative and apologetic. People say (or imply) things like:
‘I’m a Christian, but not that kind of Christian.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t believe everything in the Bible the way you do, but I still think it’s the word of God.’
‘I’m not sure I share your faith, but I hope you can recognise me as a fellow-Christian.’
Many ‘progressive’ theological writers seem to be constantly engaged in a battle with fundamentalism. Many of them in fact grew up in a conservative environment, both theologically and politically, and have turned away from it. This tends to make the whole discourse an argument within the Christian community rather than a declaration to the world. Their books are read mostly by Christians who are looking for a fresh expression of the faith they already have. It is sometimes tempting to think that liberal or progressive Christianity is parasitic on traditional Christianity: if it wasn’t for the conservative churches, what would liberals or progressives have to say, and who would listen to them?
There are of course Christians who make a big impression on the world through their actions – people like Dr Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, and the many Christian churches that have a ministry that makes a real difference to their communities. In these, the heart of the Christian message is being proclaimed in action. But should it not be possible to spell it out in words as well?
I want to explore the question of how we can declare a relevant, positive, exciting faith that just forgets the things we don’t believe and declares the good news we do believe. Watch this space! And in the meantime, suggestions are welcome.