Oddly perhaps, I often find myself in placed of growing numbers and increasingly committed people - and that is a very positive and encouraging place to be. But before people begin to assume that I'm living in the land of milk and honey or residing in some comfortable and easy place where the numbers remain static despite comings and goings (and I have lived in that reality) let me dispel any such ideas now.
Last week I found myself up in a pulpit looking down on a very small number of people as I preached the sermon. Those before me were outnumbered by those behind me - there were more in the choir than there were in the congregation - and we could have comfortably filled the front row of the pews and left the rest of the building empty. This, according to some, is what the reality of an ageing and declining church looks like and I say this to make the point that decline is a real and valid issue for many. I am not denying the fall in numbers or the fact that the average age of some congregations is higher than an English cricket team's one day score!
I hope you will excuse me for saying this but I think the problems we have in Church (that means universal, not just one local expression of it) are due to a number of factors. Two of these are considered here:
The first of these that I, in my humble opinion, am seeing feels like an increasing number of 'office hours' clergy. Ministry as a nine to five role where the services that must be done are done and that's the 'job done'.
Consider a church with multiple services. A cleric finds themselves down to do the a.m. slots and that done considers their church attendance for the day finished leaving the p.m. Slot/s to whoever is down to do them as they settle in for an 'evening off'. Attendance is only required when the rota demands!
Others, having done the a.m. slot/s, appear content with the situation that there is no pm slot to be left to anyone else; after all, if there was who would come? I encounter a number who encourage me to 'drop the p.m. slot' as something outmoded and unpopular. 'If you do it, they won't come,' is their mantra as we are encouraged to accept that which began with the Forsythe Saga in 1967 (and repeated in 1969) vying to take place of the evening service is now complete.
The second is to be found in the apparent lack of desire of those who consider themselves to be Christians to actually be in church. With this situation in mind I asked ten Christians the same question: Where were you last Sunday and why were you there?'
The responses (in order of popularity) were:
Two had been 'shopping'.
'Shopping' is a rather nebulous category which ranges from going out to buy stuff through to finding yourself in some mega shopping complex or in a garden Centre with the promise of 'lunch out' included. Shopping offers more than just a purchasing opportunity - it offers distraction (especially if you have the grandchildren) and a complete day out if you want to be entertained, distracted and fed.
Three had been 'looking after grandchildren'.
A reason for decline as the age of church members increase and their working age children have to work on Sunday (as it's no longer a special day) leaving their offspring in need of free child care.
Five merely looked embarrassed and mumbled various excuses much like me when asked where my homework was all those years ago. 'I did do it but the dog ate it!' doesn't hold much credibility when used as a response to the 'why weren't you at church?' question. The honest response would have been: 'couldn't be bothered!'
Now I understand that by placing these people on the spot I have already broken all the rules. I know I'm expected to merely smile and be grateful that they choose to come at all and leave it at that, but why?
Why should I be expected to be content to create the spiritual equivalent of a dinner party and then have those expected fail to turn up because they couldn't be bothered?
In Matthew chapter twenty-two we find a parallel situation in one of Jesus' parables:
"The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ But they paid no attention and went off--one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.
The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests."
The final bit of this story is an even greater shot across the bows, but that's something for another day, so we will merely continue with the image that those who couldn't be bothered found something to be bothered about. (this isn't a threat, don't panic about clergy coming to burn your cities)
In the context of a meal those who fail to come are often never invited again and not coming is usually associated with grovelling and oft embellished reasons for not attending from the absentee. But not so with many in Church today - they, it seems, just aren't bothered!
The response of many clergy is to try and make the service 'more appealing' or to tweak the 'worship*' in an effort to make the service 'more popular' or to dumb down the sermon to make it 'more accessible' or to make the service shorter to make it 'less intrusive' or to cater for whatever it is that they think will prove to be (wait for it) 'popular'.
We struggle to find what it is that the people want and then seek to meet that perceived need because otherwise they won't come and we will be in decline and the money won't be there to pay the parish share and we will have failed. We do our market research in the mistaken belief that we have to keep the customer satisfied and that numbers are the measure of success. Suddenly preaching the Gospel becomes something secondary and telling the truth (no matter how lovingly) takes second place to tickling the ears and entertaining the masses as we chase success.
When it comes to finding what the people want and letting them have it - something the world regards as the way forward - this is the negative context whereby faith becomes the opiate of the masses as reality and focus are lost.
When Church preaches Jesus, the Christ, crucified, risen and working in and through us by His Holy Spirit, this is the positive context which Marx pointed to as faith as an opiate in that it overcomes the pain of oppression and earthly struggle and enables us to carry on through to the end of the journey that is this earthly life.
If you want a cheap meal then go to the garden centres, pubs and shopping malls.
If you want an expensive meal (cost a life) that satisfies more than just your stomach - come to Church.
If you want to be entertained go to the cinema, turn on your TV or read a book.
If you want to be informed and enlivened and transformed and at peace - come to Church.
If you want something where you can switch off and leave your brain at the door
Something that will approve of all you do and want (as long as you can pay)
Something that will never tell you your are wrong (the customers ALWAYS right)
I'd give Christianity a very wide berth indeed.
But if you would like to be someone you can see in the mirror and know you can trust
Someone who can be relied in when the problems appear
Someone who does the right thing even when it is also the hard thing
Someone who not only knows the meaning of life but its author too
There's a church near you longing to make your acquaintance and welcome you into the family.
*Worship is not the music bit - the whole service is an act of worship!