Here is an idea, suggested by Philip Hughes, senior research officer of the Christian Research Association, in the latest edition of the CRA’s magazine “Pointers”:
Another theory is that the mainstream churches are declining most rapidly because they emphasise the importance of religion as values and place less emphasis on religion as finding God… The primary values in religion which are important to people are the emphasis on compassion and the care of others. However, if religion is primarily about such values, there is little need to attend a church. One can live a life that exemplifies such values without attending church at all.
Parents want their children to develop such values. Hence, church-based schools are increasingly popular in Australian society, even though church attendance is declining. Church-based schools are seen as encouraging such values, both through their structures of pastoral care and discipline and through their explicit teaching.
Those people who value the opportunity for a personal relationship with God are much more likely to attend church. Many people value that relationship with God because they believe that, through it, they align themselves with a divine purpose or sense within it something of the mystery at the heart of the universe. Such a relationship may also contribute to a sense of inner peace and security, and can be a resource in times of trouble.
This theory suggests that those churches which focus on enhancing a close, personal relationship with God, and the expectation that God will intervene in personal life, are likely to grow, while those churches that focus on the values of helping others…are likely to decline.
It is an idea that merits further research. My gut feeling is that he is onto something. Since the Debate in the Melbourne Town Hall last month, I have been pondering the role which social justice and charitable activity have in the New Evangelisation. My basic thesis is that when Church lives according to the commandment “Love one another as I have loved you”, she is giving authentic witness to the Gospel; however, this “new commandment” is NOT the Gospel itself. If the Church is to fulfill her mandate to “make disciples of all nations”, she must not only give authentic witness to the Gospel, but also clearly enunciate and proclaim the Gospel itself.
It is my impression that the social justice values of the Catholic Church (as distinct from the Church’s moral teaching) are generally approved of and supported by the general population – along the lines that Mr Hughes suggests above. How often I have heard teachers tell me that their students – who otherwise have little religious sensitivity – have a strong sense of social justice and are enthusiastic about programs which involve charitable work. The entire platform of the argument that “The Church is a force for good in the world” put up by the affirmative side in the aforementioned debate was in relation to this aspect of the Church’s mission.
But we are all aware that such enthusiasm does not translate into Church attendance – and this is where I think Mr Hughes may be onto something. People attend church because they feel a need to connect with God. In the Catholic Church this connection is achieved through the Church’s liturgy and sacraments. In protestant churches, it is often through the lively preaching that this connection is achieved. Music and devotional/spiritual practice are also powerful “connectors”. The simple conclusion would be that improvement in our liturgical, devotional, homiletical and musical practice on Sunday would translate into higher attendance.
But something else, it seems, is also required, and this is where we get back to the proclamation of the Gospel. What is, after all, the Gospel? I throw this to those of you at the commentary table to take further (I will open a new bottle of port for the discussion), but it does seem to me that Mr Hughes is correct – it must involve pointing people to the path of relationship/communion with God. I will be more specific. “The Way” (as Christianity was known in apostolic times) to God is through the Risen Christ, Jesus, God’s Son. Proclaim Christ and you proclaim the Gospel. Proclaim the Gospel and you show people “The Way” to God.
There is an old story of an American rancher visiting a cattle station in outback Australia. The rancher says to the station owner: “How do you stop your cattle from running away without any fences?” The station owner replies: “We dig a well and provide water. They always come back to the water.”