This week I had the opportunity again to write an article for the Religion Page of the Prince George Citizen. This time I decided to focus on the apparent general decline in church attendance in the western world, including our own nation, province, and city. In the article I mentioned that a Pew Research poll discovered that in a forty year period from 1971 to 2011, here in the west Roman Catholic church attendance shrank from 47 to 39 per cent, and in Protestant churches from 41 to 27 per cent. In the same time period, those identifying themselves as having no religious association grew from 4 to 24 per cent.
In the article I mention that this trend does not mean that all churches of the western world are in this state. There are many notable examples of large and thriving churches in our part of the world. Furthermore, in the non-western nations of the world, the church is growing exponentially in these same times. However, it’s important for us to be realistic about the fact that the church in general, in our part of the world, is not growing, is not holding its own, and is in a state of decline.
Those of us who have been vitally involved in the church over the last 40 or 50 years can see rather plainly that there has been a radical shift in our western church’s focus and energy. While there are many wonderful exceptions, no doubt we all know of young people (including children and grand-children) who no longer regularly participate in the church even though they may have grown up in it having also made a meaningful confessions of their faith at some point.
All of these things are making many of us ask the reason for this apparent disinterest of faith on the part of the current generation. Having majored in sociology and theology during the years of my formal education, I am most interested in this phenomenon from both of those perspectives. The most common theological explanation is that this trend is due to the days in which we live. Many see this relapse of faith as an indicator that God’s days of grace are coming to an end and that the “day of the Lord,” or the time of His judgment is growing near. After all, one of the signs that Jesus’ return will be imminent is that, “… the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12).
Personally, I wouldn’t want to discount the significance of this prophetic word which is reinforced by the words of the Apostle Paul to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:1 and 2 Tim. 4:3 and 4). These are spiritually dark days in the west. It is an age of extreme skepticism concerning faith in God and the revelation of His Word. People generally have rejected the truths of Scripture or have taken the liberty to reinterpret its clear teaching in support of their inclinations and practices. This factor has had a huge impact on the strength and vitality of the church in these days.
Yet, taking all of history into consideration as well as the long view of what God may still wish to accomplish in the world, it is quite possible that many, many years could yet pass before Jesus’ return. In fact, properly considered, events or the crises of our times could easily yet lead the western world to another great spiritual revival that would once again turn the tide toward faith in God in biblical terms.
The sociological reason for the current prevailing sense of scepticism has to do with the deeper philosophical developments that underlie the popular and powerfully influential culture of our times. Long before the observable shift took place in the faith practices of the church there has been a significant shift in the surrounding culture. Essentially this shift consists of a departure from the structuralism of the modern period (which came out of the Renaissance) toward more of a deconstructionist approach of this current time (influenced by later thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, and Jacques Derrida). The idea of more generally accepted absolute references has given way to more individualized interpretations of reality. Subjectivism is the new reality. History and the future are not nearly as important as the present moment. Systematic theology (doctrine) has given way to the development of a more organic theology (referred to as biblical theology).
These trends have many implications for the church. But in part, it means that church worship and experience these days is more focused on people’s authentic current experience of Christ than on a rational foundation for faith. Charismatic churches are more likely to thrive in this context. Less attention is given to deep explanations of doctrine. There is more emphasis, in a sense, on simple faith in Jesus — without reference to how people should actually live accept to practice “love.”
This lack of a good rational foundation for faith in our times has resulted in a kind of spiritual vacuum consisting of much less biblical/theological knowledge and a very real sense of spiritual emptiness. As I point out in the newspaper article, people like Dorothy Sayers, the British novelist of the early-to-mid 1900’s, say this kind of vacuum poses a huge opportunity for the church of our time (Letters to a Diminished Church). She writes, “…it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity.” Despite the inclination of today’s generation, more than ever, there is a thirst for real answers to the real questions of life — if they are well-researched and presented.
So it seems to me that wise church leaders of these times will make the most progress in their ministries if they are conscious of these trends, giving some attention to them, while also seeking to give thoughtful explanations of the Bible and the Christian faith. Older Christians of the former generation will be able to manage the shift if they more fully understand the reasons for it and pray accordingly. And the current generation will return to church in larger numbers if they are loved to the point of listening to them and serving the deeper spiritual desires of their hearts and minds.