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.


  1. The words Christians use to describe where they are at or what they are attempting to do is often the language of Christians involved in mainline churches attempting to resurrect the existing church. De-constructing the language is interesting to me. I think that terms coined or originating from genuinely creative attempts to be relevant and meaningful are often then hijacked or sought to be assimilated back into a system that at its core does not really want to change. An example of this is the bright and hopeful term 'Fresh Expressions'. However, the term triggers off in my mind the words 'Fresh Milk' and then I am reminded of its opposite 'Sour Milk'. Can fresh milk really come from sour milk? Can the old cow produce new milk without giving birth to something? Likewise the term 'progressive' (while I mostly identify with those who use it) reminds me of its opposite - regressive or oppressive. The term 'Emerging' has been hijacked by evangelicalism but it means different things to different people. I personally like the term because for me it is forward looking. When I use it I am wondering what may emerge from the ashes of the church or what ways the church may emerge in the future? For me it is a post-church term. It doesn't mean that it has no connections with the church but is beyond what we know the church to be today.

    Thanks for the blog there are lots of interesting things to build on.

  2. Elizabeth, I think that another issue is that the worship life that goes with most churches is also alienating to younger people. This applies both to expecting them to turn up every week regardless of whether what is going to happen will interest them or not and to the kinds of activities that happen during worship. A lot of the installation-based activities attract people, but they don't often become involved in an ongoing way.

  3. Judy, the point I was making about Fresh expressions and other so-called new forms of church is that they are an alternate to traditional Sunday worship and young people are not taking them up either. The research is fairly clear that they are not interested in religion, period.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Trevor. I think language is one of the problems the church does have as even in its 'new' forms, it is hardly accessible to those not in the know.

  5. Elizabeth and/or John, I agree that young people aren't taking up the fresh expressions thingies, as in not attending things that are run on Sundays at churches. My experience is that young people are interested in spiritual things, especially to mark life's milestones, but they are eclectic about what they want to do and say. I have been fascinated by what kinds of things students want to say and do in response to death. They certainly appreciate ritual and symbol. A number of my colleagues have had significant interest in labyriths and I am about to test that out on both the campuses I'm working at this year. RMIT had an amazing response to creating mandalas with coloured rice to express aspects of their lives. I hope to give this a go, too.

    They don't, however, see a need to become a part of a worshipping community. Ritual is a special occasion thing, I think, and they have many other opportunities for social activities, so they don't need the church in the same way that their grandparents and perhaps their parents did. The fresh expressions and emergings are still based on the idea that people will want to come regularly and become involved. I don't know about non-tertiary educated young people, but many of our students will only attend something regularly if they will fail a course if they don't or if being paid depends on turning up for work (and even then they may not bother if they don't enjoy it). The point I was trying to make about installation-based activities is that they are not designed to incorporate people into a worshipping community - they are DIY, individually oriented.

  6. I understand now what you mean, Judy. I agree that the organised church is not seen as a necessity or desirable by a lot of young folk. I do however, think that young people will join some things regularly if they have a cause they are passionate about. Certainly our political parties and various welfare and activist groups have young people in them, and up here there is a climate coalition entirely made up of young people. I still cling to the belief that if the church offered a cause of substance that was gospel based, some of these young folk might see that the church has something meaningful and worthwhile that they can work for and believe in.

  7. Yes, I think you're right. The Australian Youth Climate Coalition ( grew from a handful of students on a university campus to a national group of over 70,000 in only two or three years because they had something that young people are passionate about. I went to a talk last year given by one of the people instrumental in setting it up (she is now the national director) and she talked about the importance of hearing people's stories - something we used to do in the church, but often in such a stereotyped way that it seemed pretty false.

    I was also talking to the University Bible Study group staffworker today and he confirmed my experience - that it's very difficult to get students to come to things unless they are invited by another student. Critical mass is important, as is having something that young people are enthusiastic about. We are about to try having activities in public spaces where student congregate to see if they become involved.

    And realistically, given that Christianity/Jesus has been lifechanging for people through two millennia, it seems very unlikely that this is suddenly going to stop.