WHERE ARE WE HEADING?
Our country’s religious landscape has been changing for decades now. We still sing “God, keep our land glorious and free” in our national anthem, but public references to God in the secular world have all but disappeared. It is not so long ago in the public school system that the day began with the Lord’s prayer, and that December concerts celebrated “Christmas” instead of “the Holidays”, so what has happened?
A new Pew Research Centre analysis of Canadian census and survey data finds that more Canadians belong to minority faiths than ever before. In addition, the number of Canadians with no religious affiliation has been rising, and attendance at religious services has been dropping. We need only look around at the congregation on any given Sunday to see that the average age has increased, while numbers have decreased. What does this mean for the future of the Church if we simply maintain the status quo?
Recently a small group of All Saints’ folk, who have been meeting regularly via Zoom since attending an Alpha course together in 2019, studied Christianity After Religion, by Diana Butler Bass. Dr. Butler Bass is an American historian of Christianity, an Episcopalian, and an advocate for progressive Christianity. Although she writes from an American viewpoint, much of what says applies equally north of the Border.
There are many reasons for this drop in numbers, but two main ones she cites are the boredom of people who previously attended and who now feel that mainline churches are irrelevant to their lives, together with their dissatisfaction with churches who focus only on self-preservation. In her words, “The business of the church replaced the mission of the church”. This “holy disconnect” reveals the gap between what is preached and what is put into practice by many church communities. Butler Bass describes the “vital” church communities she has come across as “islands of success in the rising sea of Western unbelief.”
She contends that a new vision of church is needed, in which religion is transformed and renewed by spirituality. She points out that religion comes from the Latin word religio, which originally meant faith, and a relationship with God, but which loses its true meaning when worship is allowed to become little more than habit. She envisions religion as an apprenticeship for discipleship, which should begin with relationships (belonging), leading to the intentional following and imitating of spiritual practices, and finally arriving at believing. I realized as I read this that the Alpha course models this: first comes an invitation to fellowship (belonging), leading to the sharing and modelling of Christian practices. Believing is the final piece of the puzzle when people allow the Holy Spirit to work in them. Assuming that belief is the first step can be intimidating to newcomers and seekers.
Much of what Butler Bass writes challenges us to take a fresh look at the way we practice Christianity. A spiritual awakening means that we must love God and neighbour better. She states, “It is up to us to move with the Spirit instead of against it, to participate in making our world more humane, just and loving.” I believe we need to expand our understanding of worship, defined as paying homage or reverence to God. This is not limited to the worship space inside the church building. The Alpha course is an act of worship. Meeting in small groups is another way to pay homage to God. Our food bank and community garden can be viewed as acts of worship, reaching out to those in need. Sunday services are very different these days, and even when we are back to “normal” in the future, online worship will continue to enable us to share the gospel with folk who might otherwise be unable or reluctant to enter a church building. What will “church” look like in the coming decades? Only God knows for sure: the important thing is that we are ready to listen and follow, and never allow “business” to lose sight of “mission”.
A prayer from Kenya: From the cowardice that dares not face new truth… From the laziness that is content with half truth… From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth…
Good Lord deliver us.