Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The culture of good deeds and morality: why the church has missed the boat – and the point.

There was a very interesting article this week on the Guardian’s Facebook page ( Apparently in the latest instalment of the annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey ( it is clear that most people raised in non-religious households stay non-religious.

The author of the article, Nick Spencer, points out that in the BSA “everyone – 94% to be precise – brought up without religious affiliation in Britain today stays without religious affiliation. Basically, if your parents bring you up outside a faith, you stay outside a faith.” In a nutshell, younger generations by and large are not attending church. Further, the research suggests that since 1983, the number of people self-affiliating to the Church of England has halved, and most of those no longer doing so are not becoming Buddhists or Pentecostals. They are going off and joining the no-religion camp, which has apparently increased from 31% to 50%.
Nick Spencer says that this must read like a nightmare for anyone concerned about the future of the Church of England. I would expand this to say it reads like a nightmare for anyone concerned about the moderate Christian Protestant church in the Western world generally.

There has been a great deal of talk about changing the church, and various new types of church – such as ‘fresh expressions’, ‘mission-shaped’ thingummy bobs, ‘e-merging church’, and other such things – keep popping up as the saviours of the institutionalised Christian faith. The theory behind such things seems to be that if you make church more accessible and interesting then people will be more likely to come along and join in.

This survey would seem to put paid to this idea, in that those surveyed are not interested in religion, be it organised, institutionalised, messy, mission-shaped or in a pub. It isn’t just a case of rejecting old-fashioned church services or values. The younger generation presumably see the church as either a waste of their time, irrelevant or both.

I have to say that watching the American primaries to elect a Republican candidate is enough to turn anyone (including me) off Christianity. The Christian right appear to be advocating for an era somewhere back in the 1950s, with one candidate opposed even to the use of birth control. This group are conservative also in their policies, with no sympathy for the poor or the welfare recipient. They actively discriminate against people on the basis of race, creed and sexual orientation. No wonder younger, thinking, folk look at this group and decide that the church is not for them.

Many denominations still discriminate against women, who form half of the population. This is not exactly attractive to a younger group either.
So where does this leave the institutionalised Christian church? On one level, this research suggests that it will have to change profoundly to tempt non-religious people back into its fold. This may well be a good thing for the Christian church overall. Perhaps it will again become largely a small group movement, meeting in homes or public places.

And where will this leave the paid people of the church? Most of those I know who are ordained or who work as Pastors, etc, like working for the church. Trouble is, without the faithful folk who contribute each week to the workings of the traditional, institutionalised church, there is no income flow, and so presumably no paid workers for the gospel. Surely this would put the continued existence of the church at grave risk in Western countries such as Australia.

So if we want people to be paid and to be set apart to spread the good news, then this research is not good news. What then are we to do?

Nick Spencer poses two questions about the demise of the church.

In the first question he raises, he basically asks where those who claim no religious affiliation will get their morals, ethics and values from. He seems to fear that there may be no "common human values" anymore and that there will be no external moral standards to which people can be called to account.
His second question relates to retention levels in religions, and the likelihood that you will remain affiliated to a certain group if you were brought up in it. He says
For Anglicans and those of other Protestant traditions the figure is a mere 49%. The Catholic church fares a little better, with 62% of those brought up a Roman Catholic staying a Roman Catholic (although how seriously Roman Catholic is, of course, another matter). Better still are those brought up in non-Christian religions (unhelpfully not distinguished in the BSA chapter: it would be good to know how it differed from one minority religious group to another), 87% of whom remain in the faith.

This last would suggest that religion is an important part of culture, something lacking particularly in Anglo society in Western countries.

But I want to return to Spencer’s first question, and tie it to his second. There are plenty of moral people out there in our society who are not religious. Yet they believe in basic justice and human rights. They work through various secular and religious organisations such as Amnesty International and World Vision and Oxfam for refugee justice, to eliminate poverty, to free political prisoners and so on. They support GetUp! and other groups committed to challenging political and social injustice. They marched for peace, and supported reconciliation with our indigenous peoples. They try and protect what is left of our old growth forests and endangered species. They are, in fact, with their time and money, supporting organisations that are doing the work of the church, and carrying out the teaching of Jesus.

And so to Spencer’s second question: many Australians actively foster a culture of being generous, fair minded and prepared to make the effort to right many of the wrongs they observe. In Spencer’s own words, they see “no need of religious mumbo-jumbo”, and that “there is simply no reason why those brought up outside a religion should want to enter it”, particularly if their moral compass leads them to actively espouse and work for values of justice and fairness.

So why are these people, culturally inclined to such good works, not filling our churches, the places where such a culture of good works based on the ministry and teaching of Jesus should be found? Partly it is to do with the religious Christian right, as mentioned above. There is plenty of research showing they are not attractive to thinking young people; and because they get the headlines, all Christians become tarred with their brush.

I am also inclined to believe that we in the churches have become more concerned about form than substance; more interested in rhetoric than action; and so in terms of the larger issues of society, we have become more inwardly concerned than outwardly focussed. As a result, thinking, moral people have found other groups to join and other places to be. Like the Pharisees in Matthew, we have “neglected the greater matters of mercy and justice” in favour of worrying about tithing – or its equivalent modern counterpart.

For those of you who read this blog regularly, you can guess what is coming next. When our church starts acting like Jesus, and carrying out his teaching, we will become more attractive to those who seek righteousness in our society. If you are a church person, ask yourself the following questions. When was the last time that your congregation actively stood up for an oppressed group by donating money, writing letters, lobbying the government or gave up using stuff that caused the oppression in the first place? How many of your congregation actively fight for legislation to limit climate change? How many congregation members are concerned about the fate of island nations such as Tuvalu? Is your coffee and tea fair trade? Who made your clothes and what action are you taking against companies who enslave children and pay some of the most vulnerable people in our world tuppence to work in awful conditions? Does the suicide of Indian cotton farmers ensnared in a web of deceit and debt promoted by Monsanto concern you? Have you actively worked for peace in the Middle East? Does the plight of our indigenous peoples concern you? Have you joined a campaign for third world debt to be cancelled?

I could go on and on, as the troubles of our planet are many. My point is that if our churches did even some of these things, passionately, committedly and in accordance with the gospel, then people wouldn’t have to look elsewhere for a group that worked to free the oppressed, bring good news to the poor, and proclaim liberty to the captives. If we recovered this good news and put it into practice, we may even begin to see the year of the Lord’s favour emerging in our own time.