Why nobody wants to go to church any more

Picking up from the end of my last blog, let’s move on from speculation about whether Pilling is or isn’t going to recommend the blessing of lesbian and gay relationships. A question that is connected with Christian attitudes to LGB&T people and women is identified in the title of a new book written by Joani Schultz and Thom Schultz – Why nobody wants to go to church any more.

Writer Steve McSwain says it’s a question those leaving are more than ready to answer – the problem is, few insiders are listening. Well, that’s certainly true of many in the Church of England. The Schultz’s and Steve McSwain are writing about the Church in the USA where clearly, the Church is dying.

According to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, more than 40 percent of Americans “say” they go to church weekly. As it turns out, however, less than 20 percent are actually in church. In other words, more than 80 percent of Americans are finding more fulfilling things to do on weekends. Steve McSwain identifies some of the trends which are having an impact on the decline in church attendance.

  • People have more choices on weekends than simply going to church.
  • The feelings of shame and guilt many people used to feel and church leaders used to promote for not attending church every week is gone.
  • There are scores of people who have left the church, not because they possess some phony or inferior faith, but precisely because they do not want to be around judgmental people.
  • They have left, not to abandon their faith, but precisely because they wish to preserve it.
  • People meet other people of entirely different faith traditions and, if they are discovering anything at all, it is that there are scores of people who live as much, if not more, like Christ than many of the Christians they used to sit beside in church.
  • Churches cannot say, “Everybody is welcome here if, by that, they really mean, so long as you’re like the rest of us, straight and in a traditional family.” If everyone is not really equally welcomed to the table at your church, stop advertising that you are open to anyone.

There are a wide variety of opinions about why the Church is declining. Fundamentalist Christians think it’s a sign the Church is being purged just before the Rapture and beginning of the end. Some atheists, and those really angry with the Church, just hope it will eventually disappear; sooner would be better.

Steve says both are wrong. The Church is not going away, either to meet Jesus in the clouds or to fulfill atheists’ hopes. It is here to stay. It is clearly changing, and, it is in decline.

“If Harvey Cox  and Phyllis Tickle  are right, the present transformation will be every bit as significant as the East-West Schism of 1054 and the Protestant Reformation combined.

“People are smarter today than even a few decades ago. They’re more connected via the web. They are not alone in their questions about the Church and its outworn theology. People have learned to think for themselves. So, threatening people with eternal damnation if they question the Church’s theology or doctrine just won’t work anymore. No church will survive, or should survive, that attempts to control people’s faith and faith journey by using its presumed authority as a trump card.

“Suggesting that those who’ve left the Church have left their faith is not only untrue, it misses the point altogether. The majority of those who’ve left the church have not left their faith at all. They’ve left the Church precisely because they want to preserve their faith.

“Its destiny is only to become more diverse and, as it does, the Church will become more and more varied in its theology, doctrine, and ministry. In the end, the Church will either change and allow for greater diversity of belief or it will continue to see it coffers shrink, its influence wane, and church closures increase.

“Fundamentalism survives but only by making enemies of virtually everyone. For nearly two decades, I was a Southern Baptist minister. When the fundamentalists seized control of the SBC in the ’80s and ’90s, they split the denomination. Many leaders and congregations left and formed a new denomination. Or, if they remained with the SBC, they did so marginally at best. Today, the denomination has all but squandered its once exemplary status as a church growth leader among Protestant and Evangelical churches. And, with no enemies left to fight, the fundamentalists within what remains of the SBC have done what fundamentalists do everywhere. They’ve turned on each other. Today, there is very little compassion between leaders, even less cooperation between the churches, and almost no tolerance and diversity among the ranks of the grassroots, all of which were once the exemplary hallmarks of the SBC.”

The leaders of GAFCON have drawn back from the brink and at GAFCON II in Nairobi, were communicating a more conciliatory message rather than continuing to threaten schism. In contrast, the Rev Paul Perkin, Vicar St Mark’s Battersea Rise, London and Chairman of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans FCA (UK and Ireland) aligned himself with  Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali in arguing for freedom from the structures of the Church of England to ordain whom they choose, plant churches where they choose and cross borders in contravention of the Windsor Report.

The arrogance seen in Peter Ould’s blog is also to be found in Paul Perkin’s attitude. FCA gives itself permission to do anything if the Church of England recognizes and blesses lesbian and gay relationships. They won’t halt the decline of the Church, however. Conservative Christian attitudes towards LGB&T people are one of the key reasons why people don’t want to go to church any more. But you’re not going to accept that as a reason when you are so convinced about your own rightness.

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