The Pendulum is Swinging
In the world today -– less and less people are bothering to
go to Church.
According to Cardinal Thomas Williams 'our secular and
materialistic society doesn't leave much room for spiritual values. The
teachings of the church on spiritual issues have become less relevant as people
are instead looking for pleasure, prestige and power.'
But is the 'Commercial Age' really to blame for declining
numbers OR is there something more we need to discuss. I guess we have to keep
in mind that within this age of consumerism, we have more exposure to Christian
programs on TV, more Christian music than ever before, more Christian books
covering every topic imaginable -– a 'Christian smorgasbord' of whatever
you want. And yet Church growth is down?
The fact that the western world media appear to deliberately
keep Christian content to a minimum, normally releasing snippets of shallow
information and hiding the valuable depth of a persons true experience and faith
could have something to do with the decline. Canadian academic Michael Higgins,
author of The Muted Voice argues that "religion continues to be critical, and
for a significant percentage of the population the critical determination
in defining the meaning of life...but you won't read, hear or see much about
it in the media". So perhaps, lack of meaningful media coverage is indeed the
Perhaps a combination of the above plus a more simple
complaint, which requires some good old fashioned honesty to admit: we're all
No, we're not struggling with a lack of entertainment or
any particular activity. Maybe it's as simple as people growing weary of
sitting 'watching' their church operate...after a number of years the
ordinary folk confined to the spectator pews may just find it all a bit too
much. Spectator life is seasonal...and somewhere, sometime, something more
exciting to watch pops up...the core problem of people leaving churches would
seem to me to include the word 'irrelevant'.
A few years ago I could have quite happily joined the ranks
of the unchurched. I had done my time and was looking for 'what's next'?
For nearly thirty years I rarely ever missed a Sunday service, morning or night.
Midweek meetings were my oyster, a chance to get a word or two in. I had a
mental file on most topics relating to the faith and could adequately respond to
questions from those who were weaker than myself...the type of person who
was still using 'milk' while I was chewing on spiritual meat. Yes,
unconsciously I was being groomed by a 'system' for use within the
Promotion to my own glorious ministry must have been close,
when it happened...my eyes were opened to something I had never seen before. My
whole life was inward looking -– my focus was on what God had for me
within this exclusive little world. I started to understand that the unsaved
were people just like me, except they had not met Jesus yet. I was challenged
that my judgement of them should be as such...not from my elitist or judgemental
position, but genuinely eager to see the same blessing and hope passed on to
So, a new phase in life began for me. Now that I could
readily see the shortcomings of the 'institutions' we call church, look out!
Reformer Smith was awake and looking to please God....so I switched from judging
the lost to judging everybody else.
Unfortunately, I'm not the only person who in my exuberance
for God has 'stepped out of line'. Church history shows a continuous picture
of my type of sincerity, a lethal cocktail of religiosity and pride combined.
What can we learn from those incredibly big mistakes of the
past? Church history is full of a) abuses of authority b) reactions to abuses of
authority c) reforms/often moving into extremes d) Finally, people finding a
balance. So many times in an effort to do the right thing, because of our human
short sightedness, we end up creating a system which manipulates other men.
During the time of Roman Emperor Decius, Christians were
being persecuted and tortured. Those who gave up and denied their faith were
made to say "Caesar is Lord". These people became known as 'the lapsed'.
The Christians who held their faith were very much antagonistic to 'the lapsed'
and barred them from their churches. Seeing this, a Priest named Novatus started
a church which offered fellowship to these spiritually dispossessed people.
It was at this point that Bishop Cyprian, in an effort to
bring about 'unity' between the factions introduced the concept of penance,
leading to restitution within the church system. Penance involved a period of
sorrowing for wrong doing, after which, a person may be allowed to partake of
the Lord's supper. Following penance, the person appeared before the
congregation in sackcloth and ashes, awaiting the pronouncement of forgiveness
from the Bishop. Bishop Cyprian decided that this system of penance would be
graded according to the severity of the sin...the worse the sin, the tougher the
This perverted method of pastoral control and discipline has
continued to be used ever since, defrauding people of both money (as people try
desperately to pay their way out of their sinful position) and worse: it has
diverted sinners from finding the path of God's real gift of forgiveness from
guilt and shame.
It was Cyprians work "On the unity of the Church" that
led to some very scary and cruel treatment of people. It covered areas like: the
Church being a Divine Institution -– meaning salvation could only be given
through the Church "He cannot have God for his father who does not have the
Church for his mother". The Church was the one and only Bride of Christ,
beyond which there was only evil and confusion. Without the Church, communion,
pastors and even the Bible had no significance. Cyprian proclaimed that all
Bishops of the Catholic Church were successors of Peter and should therefore be
Ironically, the structure Cyprian founded in an effort to
bring about unity, became one of the most powerfully misused regimes in man's
history -– all in God's Name.
Of course many will say, 'we don't belong to the Catholic
Church, our leaders don't force punishments on those who have done wrong. We
don't believe we are the true Church...we don't treat our pastors like the
'mediator' between God and men...really?
How sweet it is to find scattered around, good church
fellowships, where we find a family of believers who worship God together and
also make some difference in the community. How sad to see regularly, a
continuation of the early churches abuses where people will follow their
religious hearts into the control of manipulating leaders. It doesn't matter
what we call ourselves (denominationally), if the theology we push is not
encouraging people in their personal walk with Jesus, we are missing the boat.
Numbers are down...perhaps an indication that significant
numbers of people are tired of playing a boring church game. Almost in a world
of our own, running alongside 'life' in general, there is so much to do -–
and there are relatively so few people finding opportunity or resources to do
it. We're a body, a team, a congregation of believers on the decline!
Church has gone on (and on) for thousands of years -– of all
the treasures tossed out to the quiet listeners from pulpits, after all the 'Words
from God' for the laity, maybe this generation has decided "enough"! Too
many promises without any deliveries...
As always, the simplest of truths are the most profound and
life-changing: all people on earth have the same spiritual problem. Jesus offers
a spiritual solution -– can we who claim to be Christian offer Jesus solution
without adding our extras?