On the Gospel, and why some churches grow and other decline…

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.”

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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7 Responses to On the Gospel, and why some churches grow and other decline…

  1. Joshua says:

    A Protestant friend of mine was just saying today that Catholics, in her experience, talk oft of God and of love, but little of Jesus Christ, let alone of having a personal relationship with him – yet, as I hastened to agree, Christianity is the religion of Jesus Christ, not of love per se. To replace a personal relationship with Our Lord by blethering about values may well produce a kind doer of good deeds, but not a Christian.

    I recall an article (in First Things?) saying precisely this: that Episcopalianism had replaced a focus on Christ with a focus on love, portrayed as some sort of free-floating sentiment.

  2. Stephen K says:

    David, I gather your point is that clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, laying down one’s life for another is not enough for people to see the point of coming to church for its services – Christ has to be proclaimed. I’ll think about that some more. I certainly agree that people come to church because they see in religious service and the religious place, a way to connect with and sense God. Their way of sensing God is, I believe, culturally formed, so that if they do feel the need and desire to enter a church or temple or mosque, they go to what they are familiar with and have been “trained” to respond to, whatever their theological comprehension or apprehension.

    However something else you say doesn’t sound quite right to me. I’d like to explore it. You say that loving one another as Jesus loved us is not the Gospel, simply an expression of witness to it. This “it”, that is, the Gospel, you say is Christ. Now, let’s concretise this so it isn’t just airy-fairy: what I think you’re saying/implying is that what you have to proclaim – if you are to proclaim the Gospel – is Jesus is God/the Son of God. In a nutshell. To be sure, there may be corollaries involved: he came to die to atone for the sins of the human race and he was raised to show spiritual death was conquered and conquerable etc etc. There, according to your article, we have it: don’t just witness the Gospel, proclaim it. In fact, the way you’ve put it seems to suggest that proclaiming it is more important than witnessing it, as if, in the sense that simply witnessing the Gospel through the commandment of love is not really witnessing the Gospel unless you proclaim it.

    Perhaps an analogy here might be saying of an employer who pays his or her employees the amount of the award wage because it happens to be convenient for him or her to do so and not because it is the award wage and he wishes to comply with the law, that the employer is not obeying the law. In other words he or she is not a law-abiding employer because it is not his or her intention to abide by the law, simply to suit his or her convenience. Similarly, you don’t witness the Gospel – Jesus’ Godship/sonship/atoning death/hope-filling resurrection – unless you say you are. Is that correct? I’m not sure it is. A public administrator would say that the employer is complying with the law if and for as long as the employee is paid the statutory wage irrespective of the employer’s intention; by the same token, if someone shows self-sacrificing love etc., unconscious of the kerygma, are they not still living the Gospel?

    If this is indeed what you are saying, then I think there are several theological problems. The first is, what possible validity can there be for such notions as implicit faith, universal atonement, baptism by desire and so on. It logically must mean that only professing Christians can be saved. That is, if proclaiming the Gospel is an imperative. (Is it? If it is, do you rely on such things as Matthew 28:19-20?)

    A second follows on from this, namely, if this – the proclamation of the kerygma – is what is crucial for the enactment of the Gospel, what on earth do Christians think they are on about maintaining sectarian/denominational distinctions over things that go beyond it: transubstantiation versus consubstantiation etc. papal infallibility, perpetual virginity, the workings of grace, sacramental mechanics….etc? In other words, what is core and non-core?

    Thirdly, does not this mean that “Gospel” becomes an assertion of theological fact and not a commandment or model? This is just not the way we often use the word or think about when we say ‘the Gospel’. Do you think that people who say that the Gospel is a radically different and counter-intuitive regime of neighbour love are wrong, even if they say that they understand this from the life and death of Jesus? Though I’ve said this before, and though someone – I think it was Christine – said it was probably apocryphal, I call to mind what is attributed to Francis of Assisi: “preach the Gospel always; use words only if necessary.” Don’t think I reduce him to a 13th century environmentalist: but I do think of him as someone who spectacularly cut through all the theological b/s.

    You may have more, better and more nuanced, things to say about the Gospel and what it is, and I’m interested if you set out to say them.

    • Schütz says:

      “David, I gather your point is that clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, laying down one’s life for another is not enough for people to see the point of coming to church for its services – Christ has to be proclaimed.”

      Not quite, Stephen. That is really a side issue. The main issue is that “clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, laying down one’s life for another is not enough for people” to come to know Jesus Christ and believe in him “– Christ has to be proclaimed.”

      “You say that loving one another as Jesus loved us is not the Gospel, simply an expression of witness to it. This “it”, that is, the Gospel, you say is Christ.”

      I turned to the Catechism to try to find some guidance in this, and was astounded that there is actually very little which defines what the Gospel is. I did find these references, however:

      1846 The Gospel is the revelation in Jesus Christ of God’s mercy to sinners

      2763 All the Scriptures – the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms – are fulfilled in Christ [cf. Lk 24:44]. The Gospel is this “Good News.”

      422 ‘But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.’ [Gal 4:4-5] This is ‘the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ [Mk 1:1]: God has visited his people. He has fulfilled the promise he made to Abraham and his descendants. He acted far beyond all expectation – he has sent his own ‘beloved Son’ [Mk 1:11; cf. Lk 1:5, 68].

      Thus, the work of Christ for the salvation of humankind – to bring “God’s mercy to sinners” – is “the Gospel”, and the works of charity and justice done by believers is a witness to this Gospel, to this “mercy to sinners” that God has shown to us in Christ.

      The Catechism has another term which it uses to speak of the behaviour of Christians in conformity with the Gospels, that is “the Law of the Gospel”. In this regard, the Catechism says:

      1965 The New Law or the Law of the Gospel is the perfection here on earth of the divine law, natural and revealed.

      1970 …The entire Law of the Gospel is contained in the “new commandment” of Jesus, to love one another as he has loved us [cf. Jn 15:12; 13:34]

      So, there is “the Gospel” on the one hand, and “the Law of the Gospel” on the other. In my thinking, living in accordance with “the Law of the Gospel” is a witness to “the Gospel” itself.

      My point is exactly as you summarise: “don’t just witness the Gospel, proclaim it”. I wouldn’t say that “proclaiming it is more important than witnessing it”, as the two go hand in hand. But I would say that the witness in actions requires a witness in words. I don’t think your analogy of the employer who conforms with the law of employment is helpful in this regard, because “Good News” is meant to be proclaimed, as well as concretely carried out. Last week’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah has this exactly:

      “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the hearts that are broken, to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison, to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord.” (Isaiah 61)

      The analogy is thus: Let the prisoners know that their sentence has been fully commuted, and as a witness to this, set them free from prison. To set them free is one thing, to tell them that they have never to fear being locked up again for their crime is another, and it is still another to tell them why and how it has come to be that their guilt has been extinguished, so that they may live in gratitude and faith to the one who gave them their freedom and forgiveness.

      Yes, “proclaiming the Gospel is an imperative”, precisely because of Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19-20. If God seeks in his grace to extend his mercy to those who have not heard the Gospel, that is his business. Ours is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ who died for the salvation of all people.

      And yes, “a second follows on from this, namely, …the proclamation of the kerygma [which is] crucial for the enactment of the Gospel”. It is in the proclamation of the Gospel, and in the hearing of it, that people come to faith in Jesus Christ. No other way. Everything else in the Church’s magisterium follows from this kerygma, including “transubstantiation…, papal infallibility, perpetual virginity, the workings of grace, sacramental mechanics….etc” We don’t get into “core and non-core” discussions, because the secondary (and the tertiary) follow on naturally from the primary proclamation of the Risen Christ.

      And this precisely means that “that “Gospel” becomes an assertion of theological fact and not a commandment or model”. The Gospel is a fact. Which is why it is “Good News”. “Good News” is not a commandment or a model, but an announcement of a new situation which changes lives and determines eternal destiny. Whether that is “the way we often use the word or think about when we say ‘the Gospel’” is beside the point. That is what the Gospel is.

      The saying “attributed to Francis of Assisi: “preach the Gospel always; use words only if necessary” needs to be balanced by the words of Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi

      22. Nevertheless this always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified – what Peter called always having “your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have”[52] – and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.

      I wish that this true magisterium of the Church were known as well as the apocryphal saying of the medieval saint.

  3. Paul G says:

    David, you mention the debate in Melbourne Town Hall you attended. This was modelled on a debate in England (possibly Oxford) between Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry and Anne Widdecombe and a bishop whose name I forget.

    Maybe it is now timely to observe the death yesterday of Christopher Hitchens. I have tried to dislike all the new atheists, but in Hitchens’ case I always fail. I know he has said rude things about Mother Teresa and all that, but whenever I have heard him speak, I find him forthright, but not abusive, willing to be self critical, not easy to “pigeonhole” (eg I just read his opinion that human life starts at conception), and above all, funny.

    His Anglican brother, Peter Hitchens has just written some thoughts about his brother that are worth reading:

    and there is a short obituary at:

  4. Robert says:

    I wonder whether it is not worth pointing out in relation to “values” and “doing good” that it is all well and good but that Nietzsche is right about all of this, that it isn’t self-justifying (which is alright, I suppose, if you are content to say “I am doing this because I am and I like it, and that is all there is to it.” But this in turn would mean that words like “good” and “bad” would become purely conventional), and in fact, it is somewhat self-defeating even. The paradox of the Cross. I think Rene Girard says somewhere that Nietzsche got Christianity entirely correct, only to reject it.

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