(warning: This may sound like whining; that is not the intention. The intention is to describe some of the factors that make it difficult to do church in a 21st century western cultural context.)
Anyone who concerns themselves with the state of the Christian church in the western world is aware that for the most part it is an institution in decline. Fewer people attend church activities; finances are tight; volunteers are stretched; professional staff feel overwhelmed.
There are a number of factors in our culture that may contribute to the challenge of being church in our day.
1. People are seldom at a lose to find ways to spend their extracurricular time. We all already have far too many options when deciding how to use the few discretionary hours that work and family commitments leave at our disposal. The competition for peoples’ spare time is ferocious. If churches are determined to generate increased involvement in busy activities, they are always going to be swimming against a strong current of resistance.
2. The human need for a sense of connection is being met adequately without church. We in the church may feel that the work place is an inadequate substitute for true community, but for many people the connections they form at work are entirely adequate to satisfy their desire for community. Professional life has become so demanding that there is often little time left to develop alternate forms of community beyond the workplace.
We may mock the connections people feel they are making through social networking tools; but for the people involved they are real and satisfy a need. It is hard to compete with technology.
3. Technology has not given us more free time, but has increasingly consumes our time. According to a December 2009 Harris Interactive poll, 80 percent of U.S. adults have online access, whether at home, work, or elsewhere. Those who surf the Net spend an average of 13 hours per week online, up from 11 hours in 2007. We may decry the fact that people are spending a lot of time online, but it is a reality we must face.
4. Staying home is an increasingly attractive option. When the living room is filled with a 52 inch screen tv with surround sound stereo and the most recent movies can be downloaded for a fraction of the cost of going to a theatre or even renting a DVD, the incentive to go out is diminished. The days when churches were the centre of a community’s entertainment life are over.
5. The pace and clamour of daily life for most people are not conducive to the quieter, more gentle and inward focused disciplines that are traditional to the development of a deep spirituality. In a culture where people find it difficult to sit still to read a book, traditional Bible study, quiet prayer, and worship that is often passive for most participants, are unlikely to draw a crowd.
6. Society offers a tremendous variety of ways today to be socially engaged and active. Greenpeace, the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, the Sierra Club, the Compost Education Centre, Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary, the local Immigrant And Refugee Centre Society, the Hospice And Palliative Care Foundation, Raincoast Conservation Society, Islands Trust Fund, Family Caregivers’ Networksociety, the Land Conservancy, to name just a few, all offer fabulous opportunities for volunteer involvement and charitable giving.
The Compost Eduction Centre is a tiny organization near my home. It is dedicated to teaching the importance of garden compost. Last year 125 volunteers contributed over 1,700 hours to deliver the Compost Education Centre’s educational programming. Churches are operating in an enormously competitive market for the volunteer hours available in our community.
7. The competition is not just for time, but also, of course, for money. Living is expensive. Disposable income is at a minimum. The economic downturn has diminished levels of donations across the spectre of charitable organizations.
Churches that find it difficult to rely upon volunteer hours, find it equally difficult to raise adequate financial resources to pay the kind of salaries that are necessary to attract capable people to paid positions in the church.
8. There is no longer any social support for church involvement or Sunday worship attendance and often active opposition. Young families are torn between keeping their children in organized sports and participating in church services on Sunday morning. When the busyness of the work week has made it impossible to get the necessary family shopping done, Sunday morning store hours represent a blessing to the consumer, even if a curse to the church.
9. Our highly developed materially comfortable consumer oriented culture makes it less like that there will be a serious desire to explore the hidden realms of spiritual life than in a situation of greater deprivation. The Christian church is only growing in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where economic challenges are a daily reality and where the connections of human community are more seriously valued.
10. Western culture is deeply individualistic. We resist significant connection with the people with whom we share living space. We are hesitant to get involved in other peoples’ lives and resist the burden of being too intimately connected.
11. Even those people in our society who do desire some form of organized spiritual activity, have a multitude of options from which to choose. You can go to the yoga studio, join Spirit Hikers, attend an endless variety of meditation workshops and retreats, or listen to your favourite spiritual teacher on a podcast. The list of spiritual options in any community is endless. Church is certainly no longer the only show in town when it comes to nourishing a spiritual life.
12. Churches are probably near the bottom of many peoples’ list when it comes to looking for spiritual nourishment. Churches continue to struggle under the burden of a bad reputation. Churches are seen as rigid, dogmatic, disrespectful, violent, disrespectful organizations interested only in preserving ancient outmoded traditions and abusing anyone who does not fall in line with the predominant thinking of the community.
13. Small and local are increasingly attractive options for many people. Certainly, where I live, there is a tendency to desire gather in more intimate local social groupings. People are drawn to the small neighbourhood pub and coffee shop. They want to be able to bike or walk to their destination. They are attracted to enterprises that are sustainable and environmentally friendly. Churches that depend upon attracting large gatherings in order to support large costly buildings are going to find it increasingly difficult to thrive.
14. Change is not popular in churches. It is difficult for churches to adapt to the rapid changes that are radically altering the context in which they must operate. Churches are often burdened with buildings, models of leadership and traditions that emerged from and were designed to address a culture that no longer exists.
There is a tendency, in the midst of all the flux and uncertainty of our culture, for church members to hunker down and determine that church will not change. It is tempting to try to make church into a fortress that resists the chaos and uncertainty characteristic of so much of our culture.
15. Churches have a tendency to view themselves as the bearers of the truth. We have not been good at listening to the world beyond our sacred walls. We have seen our job as telling those outside the church what we believe is good for them. In a culture that finds it difficult to respect authority and that questions everything, telling others how to live and what to believe does not work.
Many of these realities cannot be changed by the church. But we must take seriously the world in which we operate.
We must learn to listen to the culture in which we are attempting to foster spiritual community. We must look honestly at our own life asking what things we need to let go of in order to support the spiritual flourishing of people in our day.