Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Creeping Godlessness

A fascinating post on Time's site, entitled 'New Pope, Same Wandering Flock.' Funnily enough the writer is Mary Eberstadt, whom I quarrel with in Monday's post!! Pertinently she observes (with me emboldening key phrases for readers short of time),

 "In reality, though, and despite the hopes in some precincts for a radically overhauled Church, these departures amount to mere atmospherics. That’s because the chief conundrum facing the new Pope is the same as it was for the exceedingly aware emeritus Pope before him. It is a problem as vexatious for Rome whether in the Global South or in the affluent West, and more than any other earthly force it will decide the fate of all the churches: namely, the secularization of large parts of the formerly Christian world. Evidence abounds that creeping godlessness is not just some European thing. According to Baylor University’s Philip Jenkins, one of the foremost authorities on these numbers, across Latin America “signs of secularization appear that would have been unthinkable not long ago.” Nine percent of Brazilians now report themselves “nones,” for instance, as in “none of the religious above,” and as with the “nones” in America, the number is higher among the young. Forty percent of Uruguayans now profess no religious affiliation. Nor is the new Pope’s home country exempt from the trend – quite the contrary. Political dictatorship may be over, but the “dictatorship of relativism” deplored by emeritus Pope Benedict is alive and kicking in an increasingly secular Argentina. Then there is state-of-the-art god-forsaking Western Europe. Across the Continent, elderly altar servers shuffle in empty, childless churches; monasteries and chapels are remade into spas, apartments, or mosques; protests, including violent protests, now regularly greet any Pope who leaves Rome. Yes, there are remarkable renewal movements here and there, for the sheer ferocity of aggressive secularism has inadvertently energized a Christian counter-culture. But the secular forest still grows faster than the religious trees. One recent British survey found that about 20 percent of respondents could not say what event was commemorated by Easter. As for the United States, it remains true that Americans are more religiously inclined than Europeans. Even so, here too the trend is clear. To judge by statistics on items like attendance and affiliation and out-of-wedlock births, say, America’s religious tomorrow is just Denmark’s yesterday."

 Then Mary astutely notes that trying to fathom the puzzles here is to dive into depths in which murkiness remains:

 "So what’s a Pope to do? He can start by understanding one critical truth that has not been well understood so far: the puzzle of secularization is not only his to solve. Secular sociology has written the intellectual script about how godlessness happens but has gotten it wrong. Secularization is not, for example, the inevitable result of affluence, as many have said; statistically, men and women who are better-off in the United States today, for example, are more likely to believe and practice faith than are those further down the economic ladder. The same was true of Victorian England, as the British historian Hugh McLeod has painstakingly shown. Mammon alone does not necessarily drive out God. Is secularization then the inevitable result of increased rationality and enlightenment, as the new atheists and other theorists claim? Here again, the empirical fact that the well-educated Mormon, say, is more likely to be someone of faith would appear to confound that theory. Is secularization then the result of the world wars, as still others have supposed? If so, it is hard to see how countries with different experiences of those wars – neutral Switzerland, vanquished Germany, victorious Great Britain — should all lose their religions in tandem, let alone why countries untouched by the wars should follow suit. And on it goes. Modern sociology can tell us many things, but about the elemental question of why people stop going to church — or for that matter, why they start — the going theories have all come up short. Contrary to what secular soothsayers have believed, evidence suggests that secularization is not inevitable, and neither is it a linear process according to which decline is an arrow pointing ever downward. Rather, and crucially, religion waxes and wanes in the world — strong one moment, weaker the next — for reasons that still demand to be understood."

I say 'Amen' to Mary Eberstadt.

Here in Christchurch, reflecting primarily out of an Anglican context, but keeping an eye on other churches, the situation is remarkably (or unremarkably) similar to the picture Mary paints of other parts of the world. Churches with elderly congregations in severe decline. Many people who will have filled in our recent census forms with the Kiwi equivalent of 'nones'. Lively and large congregations in areas associated with Mammon ... and in areas definitely not associated with Mammon. Generally Mary's brilliant imagery 'the secular forest still grows faster than the religious trees' applies here (as far as I can tell - happy to be proved wrong).

I like her point that there is a puzzle about church adherence and active attendance which is not yet fathomed by the sociologists. It is currently my privilege to be associated with two churches with growing, lively congregations (10 am at St Aidan's, 7 pm Antioch at Fendalton, since you are bound to ask). But why are they growing? I could proffer great music, relevant preaching, warm hospitality as reasons, but those reasons have applied through seasons when the same congregations have been numerically static. In other words, one can observe certain things about a church because visible things are observable. But the invisible features of church growth are the reasons (say) why a whole bunch of new people turn up at a church simultaneously or why newcomers make a decision to stay rather than keep looking around or why new converts are made today rather than yesterday (when the same gospel was being proclaimed). Taking a wider view of church life in Christchurch, why are Roman Catholic, 'biblical preaching' and Pentecostal churches all experiencing dynamic congregational life? Why does no single church 'style' have the monopoly on resisting creeping godlessness? Answers from sociologists on the back of a postcard please!

Nevertheless I think it worth persevering with investigations into what makes churches tick as far as we can take them. I guess one response to Eberstadt's article would be to continue doing what we have always been doing leaving the waxing of churches to the mysteries of God and sociology. Personally I prefer to try to learn from successful congregational life, to see whether transferable lessons can be applied to situations for which I have some responsibility.

Tonight the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Christchurch receives the report and recommendations of the Structural Review Group. I have no idea what is in the report and await its findings as anxiously and excitedly as everyone else. But I am hopeful that it will reflect careful consideration of the challenging times in which we live, the possibilities which lie before us for resisting creeping godlessness and for developing great congregations to the glory of God.

23 comments:

mike greenslade said...

Kia ora Peter,
It is an interesting assumption that declining religious affiliation is the same as godlessness. Perhaps it is also a reflection of a shift in who is given authority in 'god-matters'?

Father Ron Smith said...

I suspect, from my own experience of people I actually know - who believe in God, but not necessarily in the trajectory of the Church - that the Holy Spirit is still at work, perhaps anonymously, in places where the Church is fearful to tread.

This IS God's world, and God is not mocked. The Church needs to get its act together on Justice and Peace.

"Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us - therefore, let us keep the Feast - not with the old leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the un-leavened bread of Sincerity and Truth. Amen." - Lenten Liturgy -

Jethro said...

Hi Peter,
from what I have studied these churches are most likely growing not from new growth but from return or transfer growth. The stats pretty much say that between 95% and 98% of "new" growth is from people who have had experience of church somewhere in their childhood or youth (only 2% to 5%, depending on the church, from nonchurched backgrounds), and have returned for what ever reason later in life.

I might hazard a guess and say that they find these forms of church the most vibrant, relevant and engaging. Returning families wish their kids to be part of Sunday schools and youth groups, and the parents and others want to feel part of a church that is happening and authentic. That is my guess anyway. The sad thing is as more and more people become unchurched, less and less people will return.

So I would answer your second question by saying that perhaps no single church style has a monopoly because no single church style ever has. In New Zealand at least there has been denominational pluralism even from its missionary beginnings. Denominational ties seem more to do with geography, e.g. Christchurch = Anglican, Dunedin = Presbyterian etc, than anything else. There is also evidence to show that Pentecostalism met many of the questions that Boomers were asking that their 1950's church backgrounds did not. So these 'returners' either go back to churches based on previous church experience, or to a church that helps them where they are at.

I would also like to add that as Eberstadt points out that secularization theory no longer has much credence among sociologists as a reason for church decline (check out Peter L. Berger for more on this). The fact of the matter is it can now be said that we are living in a post-secular era. Religious belief is actually on the rise! It is just not Christian belief, or Christian belief as we know it. People are engaging with religion/spirituality in whole new ways. So church decline must be for other reasons than this mythic secularization! So what are these reasons and can or should anything be done about it?

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks for comments!

Mike: I am not commenting on 'spirituality' in the sense of people within and without the churches understanding themselves as spiritual beings, on a spiritual journey, deepening their spiritual awareness. (Theoretically, this might be 100% of the population, irrespective of either church attendance or census returns).

I am, however, suggesting that 'godliness' (and by contrast, godlessness) concerns our commitment to the God of Jesus Christ expressed through obedience to God's command to be in fellowship with other Christian believers, a matter measurable to a considerable degree via church attendance (and to a lesser degree via census returns). Thus, a certain number of problems acknowledged (such as Christians unable to attend church, or Christians temporarily disaffected with church), I do connect godliness with attendance!

mike greenslade said...

" I do connect godliness with attendance!" (PC)

Really?

The idea that the institutional church is the (only/main) place where fellowship occurs is a problem the church seems stuck with...

I would contend that the 'church' beyond the institution is just as important, but does not get reflected in census stats or sunday numbers. And it is not just about 'spirituality'.

Bryden Black said...

A necessary post Peter; and some helpful opening remarks from Jethro. Combining part of his comments with Ron’s main point, it certainly does seem that it suits our present western cultural mood to prefer ‘spirituality’ to ‘religion’, especially when the former is also mostly according to one’s own ‘construction’, often a melange of bits and pieces - “bricolage” being the trendy postmodern description. But I’m not sure this initial observation advances our cause much, since it only mostly repeats Feuerbach’s own thesis that religion is but a human projection.

More substantial to my mind are the following. CoE’s Church House did some hard research around the 1990s canvassing genuine adult conversions (as opposed to any of that transfer stuff already mentioned). One key element was the sheer time it took these new converts to travel from no belief/vague belief in ‘some-sort-of-deity’ to active discipleship of Jesus. Back then the average among the sample chosen was some 4½ years; I suspect that figure could be longer today. What this means for local parishes is that parishioners need to learn to journey with their friends for quite a while; they need to shift gear as and when and only when their friends are ready to do so; plus any ‘programmes’ the parish offers collectively need to cater for this multiple stage process. Yes; it’s a complex business ...!

Secondly, Anglican culture finds all this really rather alien; ours is mostly a cradle to grave mentality. Sure; the so-called Fresh-Expressions movement has now got some great runs on the board. For all that, FX remains the exception and not the norm culturally for most main-line denominations.

Thirdly, the earthquakes in Chch are a real God-send at this particular point: what I mean is quite specific. Churchill once remarked that we build our buildings and then our buildings build us. In other words, if any major shift in church culture and set practices is ever to occur, then those jolly buildings, which have built and maintained that very culture, have themselves to be altered. Sure; it’s traumatic and not at all comfortable; in fact, it’s miserable ... But we in Chch are ideally positioned to realize a unique opportunity. The trouble is our collective imagination is just too vapid.

Lastly for now, to my own mind, the most helpful resource I have ever encountered is Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay’s, The Hidden Motives of Pastoral Action (ET Maryknoll, Orbis, 1978). Originally a course of workshops designed for North American religious (Roman Catholic priests and nuns) upon their coming to Latin America, they were written up for wider consumption, since the material covered - or rather uncovered, discovered even, by the participants - appeared to be “really more universally applicable than I [JLS] had thought”. In attempting to prepare these visitors for pastoral ministry in a new environment, Segundo sought to remove from them “viewpoints, criteria and guidelines that they brought with them from their homelands” and so falsely imposed upon Latin America. He was about the task of “deschooling” them. And then building on this vision and a common missionary experience is Howard Snyder’s great oeuvre - but that will have to wait for another day with more time to unpack ...

liturgy said...

Greetings

Building on Jethro’s comment and connecting it with the diocesan strategic planning you refer to, Peter: you have more than once mentioned the value and efficacy of church schools; it will be interesting to see whether there is a real shift from parish-as-it-was-but-in-different-locations to real mission and ministry units which include schools, possibly integrated in partnership with the state-recognised needs for new configurations in education.

I am not as convinced by the geographical locating of denominational participation. I would not be surprised that, though the street names of Christchurch are pointedly Anglican, church attendance here, as elsewhere, goes to the Roman Catholic Church.

What numerical communities have in common, I hesitate to posit, is difference from the surrounding culture. If church is not different – why go?! That difference may be mental, moral, in ritual, or in justice. But the days of pages of mumbling religious poetry recitals in response to announced page numbers for which Anglicanism is famous – are IMO numbered.

Blessings

Bosco

MichaelA said...

"from what I have studied these churches are most likely growing not from new growth but from return or transfer growth. The stats pretty much say that between 95% and 98% of "new" growth is from people who have had experience of church somewhere in their childhood or youth (only 2% to 5%, depending on the church, from nonchurched backgrounds), and have returned for what ever reason later in life."

I rather doubt that, Jethro. My own experience has been quite the opposite. Churches which display a vibrant enthusiasm for spreading the gospel tend to have significant numbers of people from unchurched backgrounds who are now developing stable Christian commitment. Whereas people from unchurched background tend to be almost non-existent in churches without that emphasis.

MichaelA said...

Peter,

I agree, an excellent article, with much food for thought in it.

Jethro said...

MichealA,
what do you doubt? This study was of large, vibrant, growing churches, not the small dying ones. 5% is a significant number. Maybe it is 5%er churches you have experienced? Part of the rub maybe how the study defined the terms churched/unchurched and how those in your churches define them?

If you want to know more about me facts, check out Kevin Ward's "Christendom, Clericalism, Church and Context." In Stimulus Vol10, No1, Feb 2002.

Kurt said...

“What this means for local parishes is that parishioners need to learn to journey with their friends for quite a while; they need to shift gear as and when and only when their friends are ready to do so; plus any ‘programmes’ the parish offers collectively need to cater for this multiple stage process.”—Bryden Black

Well said, Bryden! This is exactly the attitude that our parish has been trying to cultivate over the past few years. It appears to be paying off. Three years ago we had one Mass on Sundays averaging 30-40 people. Today, we have two Sunday Masses (one for a much younger crowd at 5 pm) with a total average attendance of 50-70 people for both services. We have more baptisms, too.

Kurt Hill
In snowy Brooklyn, NY

Kurt said...

“What this means for local parishes is that parishioners need to learn to journey with their friends for quite a while; they need to shift gear as and when and only when their friends are ready to do so; plus any ‘programmes’ the parish offers collectively need to cater for this multiple stage process.”—Bryden Black

Well said, Bryden! This is exactly the attitude that our parish has been trying to cultivate over the past few years. It appears to be paying off. Three years ago we had one Mass on Sundays averaging 30-40 people. Today, we have two Sunday Masses (one for a much younger crowd at 5 pm) with a total average attendance of 50-70 people for both services. We have more baptisms, too.

Kurt Hill
In snowy Brooklyn, NY

Kurt said...

“What this means for local parishes is that parishioners need to learn to journey with their friends for quite a while; they need to shift gear as and when and only when their friends are ready to do so; plus any ‘programmes’ the parish offers collectively need to cater for this multiple stage process.”—Bryden Black

Well said, Bryden! This is exactly the attitude that our parish has been trying to cultivate over the past few years. It appears to be paying off. Three years ago we had one Mass on Sundays averaging 30-40 people. Today, we have two Sunday Masses (one for a much younger crowd at 5 pm) with a total average attendance of 50-70 people for both services. We have more baptisms, too.

Kurt Hill
In snowy Brooklyn, NY

MichaelA said...

Jethro,

I note that your first post said "I have studied" and now that has changed to a particular study by someone else.

"Part of the rub maybe how the study defined the terms churched/unchurched and how those in your churches define them?"

Or for that matter, in how the study defined "large, vibrant, growing churches" and "the small dying ones" which you say were excluded, and no doubt how it defined (or assumed) half a dozen other factors which you haven't discussed. Tweak the parameters and its not difficult to come up with whatever conclusions suits the particular focus of the conductor.

"Maybe it is 5%er churches you have experienced?"

*LOL* Indeed! And maybe it is a particular per cent that you are looking at also...

Studies can be produced which will show anything in any area of endeavour, including claims that are simply not credible once common sense and common experience is engaged.

Bryden Black said...

Peter; perhaps it is time to venture a more fulsome response yet to your post re “godlessness”. And I don’t this time around refer (yet) to Howard Snyder. Rather, I want to start by referring to Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought: an alternative history of philosophy (Princeton, 2002). She herself begins with reference to that (in)famous Lisbon earthquake of 1755, on All Saints Day, when some 60,000 perished in Lisbon alone and many thousands more due to the ensuing tsunami along the coasts of Morocco, the Algarve, etc.

The point of commencing here is to draw the sting from Voltaire’s own reaction to this event, on which Neiman builds much of her thesis - typically! For a huge feature of modern western atheistic argument and debate tries to raise the theodicy question, as does Neiman. Yet it does so against a form of deity that is fundamentally not Christian! Rather, the god they seek to oppose - and pretty well rightly in my view - is the deistic god of Nature, which is raw in tooth and claw, whose capricious designs are hard to fathom let alone justify. The object of Voltaire’s poetic spleen is not the God and Father of Jesus, the Messiah of Israel. Nor is this God exactly the one to whom Ivan Karamazov would “return his ticket”. For indeed, no amount of moral calculus could ever ‘justify’ the horror of the gulag, the Holocaust, or the boy turn apart by a master’s dogs - or Syria’s present civil war. There is no eschatological tapestry of ‘balancing’ which may in the end ‘explain’ how and why these evils ‘fit’ into the divine economy of salvation.

No; the irrationality of sin (the “impossible possibility”, Barth) and the emptiness of death, how ever, when ever and why ever these occur, are all enemies of the Good God, whose Beauty and Truth are besmirched by all such privations and falsehoods in his creation. The only theodicy on view in the NT is one where this God of Jesus confronts the principalities and powers of this world, both political and natural/cosmic, and defeats them through the mission of the Incarnation, climaxing in the Cross, resurrection and ascension. Nowhere does the NT offer an ‘explanation’ the likes of which Voltaire and derivatively Neiman vilify. The NT even agrees with Ivan’s sentiments: such a god, as is often couched as ‘Christian’, deserves to have the ticket to ‘this kingdom’ thrown back in his face!

Instead of trying to muster some kind of human optimism in the face of suffering despite ourselves, the Christian Message offers hope - a hope predicated upon One, whose Life and Death and Transformation of the very material world in Resurrection and Ascension, gives a due comfort, even as this God’s Spirit groans with us and his very creation (Rom 8). If Christians would themselves live - learn to live - out of such a hope and not their own inadequate rationalizations, then perhaps we’d bequeath a testimony worth taking notice of ... But that too requires a due ingestion of Paul’s entire “gospel”, Romans 1-11, and then chs 12-16 as well.

PS Thanks Kurt: power to your elbow/evangelization.

Peter Carrell said...

Amen!, Bryden.

Jethro said...

Sorry MichaelA if I have offended you. The paper I referred to gives a good overview of a few studies done on larger conservative churches. It's basic conclusion being that though there is a place for large Christendom style churches they are not the only 'answer' to the churches present decline. There needs to be more creative thinking done around how we do church in the 21st century if we are to invite more people to follow the way of Jesus in a post-christendom world. The paper is a little out of date, but I think its conclusions are still very relevant! Please do read it if you get a chance.

Father Ron Smith said...

Gosh, Bryden. I do admire your capacity for reading other people's understanding of the Christian Way. I'm supposed to be retired but I find it sometimes a distraction to my quiet time to have to try to ingest so many other people's understanding of what is meant by 'Christ in me, the hope of glory'.

I do hope you manage to have a little time left over for quiet prayer and contemplation - and, of course, to tend your 'cattle on a thousand hills'.

Too much book learning can be a hindrance to the necessary task of sorting things out for one's-self. We need to take time out to sort out what WE think.

Saint Francis of Assisi had little time for books. He is said to have banned them from friaries - in favour of 'doing the gospel', and contemplating the Christ he knew.

Shawn Herles said...

"In a post-Christendom world."

We don't live in a "post-Christendom" world. We live in a world that is far too complex for that kind of one issue analysis.

At current growth rates China is arguably pre-Christendom, with the Church there in much the same position as the early Church. Many of the large, conservative evangelical and Pentecostal churches being planted in Auckland NZ are Chinese. Are such churches examples of "Christendom"?

The situation in Africa could certainly be described as post-colonial, but in countries where Christians are a large majority various degrees of vibrant Christendom can be found.

In Eastern Europe and Russia, after decades of Communism, Christendom is undergoing a rebirth (resurrection?). Russia is essentially a Caesero-Papist State with the Russian Orthodox Church closely allied to the State and given preferential treatment.

Hungary has an explicitly Christian constitution and the current government is conservative Christian. There are two main opposition parties, and one of those is an ultra-conservative Christian Party even more "pro-Christendom" than the current government.

In Poland the government has been dominated by two conservative parties, one of which is the "pro-Christendom" Law and Justice Party.

To various degrees much the same situation exists throughout Eastern Europe.

So at best the post-Christendom label us relevant only in the West. It is true that we live in a post-Christian West, but it is also important not to use a simplistic understanding of that to label certain churches as examples of "Christendom."

Much of the basic structure of the Church in terms of ecclesiology and in terms of basic liturgical worship was developed prior to Constantine and the rise of Christendom. Thus I would not agree that a standard local parish (of whatever denomination) with a traditional Word-Table liturgy is an example of "Christendom."

Nor do I believe that large Evangelical or Pentecostal mega-churches are examples of "Christendom." In fact I would argue that they are missional responses to a post-Christian society.

I am all in favour of experementing with new ways of doing church and worship. But it is vital not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and vital that a simplistic and at times inaccurate understanding of what constitutes "Christendom" and "post-Christendom" not be used to disparage the heritage of the Church, or label specific churches in simplistic ways.

Jethro said...

Sorry I should not have used the word 'world'. In my post-grad study on church and change the language in many of the readings is often inflammatory (perhaps out of frustration from being misunderstood?), and it has put me into bad habits. In the future I shall be more careful to explain that I am talking about our New Zealand context.

Bryden Black said...

Morning Ron! “Nie fret thyself laddie!” as my Scots gran used to say. For to be sure (in the lilt now of my Irish mother-in-law), there’s ample time to “consider the lilies of the field” - as well as those delightful “cattle beasts”.

I do however sincerely hope you have not mistaken Susan Neiman for an “understanding of the Christian Way”! Au contraire, hers is a necessary insight into the very contemporary culture that requires due evangelization! The point after all of Peter’s post.

Lastly, I do admire those Franciscans: they embrace both their founder’s ways and the likes of Bonaventure, whose classic Itinerarium mentis in Deum or The Soul’s Journey into God is surely a delightful aid to contemplation of the glories of the triune God. If you yourself do not use it - and I say “use”, not merely “read” - then may I recommend it.

Chris Spark said...

Jethro,
I reckon you may be on to something - especially with the idea of exploration and what may be helpful in broadening our reach - and you have done more study on it than me! Good discussion to have.

I am wondering (and would love to chat to you sometime about, as I really think these online things are limited) Where I would fit in such a study. I was essentially unchurched in that I grew up in a non-church going family (went maybe twice with my mum at Christmas with a touch of interest re tradition, and once in teen years to play drums for a the Woodend Anglican that asked me to for a one-off). Yet I was quite impacted by bible in Schools/CRE - which gave me a basic interest in Jesus. In fact, now I think of it, I think I even went to Sunday School maybe twice when I was 8 or 9 or so as a reult of Bible in Schools.
I was interested in Jesus from then on, even looked at the Bible a little (I asked for one for a present when I was little because of CRE I think), but didn't really get Jesus.
But no significant decision or church attendance or teaching happened for me untik I was 19 and started going to St John's Chch through a friend. I certainly don't think I could say I was a Christian before that, though was certainly a nervous and too-busy seeker.

I wonder whether I would be considered unchurched or not in one of those studies. Love to chat to you about that and learn how that sort of thing plays out in these sorts of studies sometime.

MichaelA said...

Jethro, I assure you that you have not offended me.