Tuesday, 23 July 2013

“Do not let anyone condemn you...”: a sermon (Colossians 2:6–19)

It’s a very hard time these days to be a member of a mainstream church, such as the Uniting Church, or the Anglican Church, or the Catholic Church.  If you don’t believe me, just read any newspaper:

On the one hand, whenever a church – any church - takes a broadly traditional stand on any ethical issue in the community, they’ll say we’re just “out of touch”.

But then, on the other hand, whenever a church – any church - takes a broadly progressive stand on any ethical issue in the community, they’ll say we’re just being “politically correct”.

And then, again. if a church – any church - thoroughly researches yet another issue and develops a thoughtful, balanced, carefully-nuanced, difficult-to-stereotype response to the issue, the story gets buried on page thirty-eight.  (That’s if it gets published at all.)

If, however, a minister or priest misbehaves in some way (sexually, financially or in any other way), it’s splashed all over the front page.  (And in this, I think we should all recognise that the Catholics are copping it far worse than other churches.  When a Catholic priest gets into trouble, it usually gets a lot more media attention than it does when clergy of other churches misbehave.  When clergy of other denominations misbehave, they are not seen as being "typical" of their colleagues, as is often the assumption with Catholic priests.  Catholic-bashing has always been a popular media game in the English-speaking world, but these days it’s getting worse.)  

The good community work of many congregations and church agencies – of all denominations - is rarely mentioned at all. 

Occasionally, the papers report disturbing statistics about the institutional decline of mainstream denominations.  These statistics are often accompanied by gloating comments from adherents of the more intensely “religious” sorts of churches.

Mainstream churches like ourselves are frequently criticised, mocked, and even condemned by many people.  And we get it from two different quarters.
  • Some are people who are uncomfortable with any sort of religious faith, who prefer to mock what they cannot understand.
  • Others are people with a very intense style of Christian faith, who despise us for being much less intense in our faith, and much less willing to condemn the beliefs and behaviours that they would condemn.
It causes a crisis of confidence for many mainstream churches.

And this crisis of confidence for the future of mainstream churches also signifies a growing problem for our society in future years.  If you look at the active, participating members of mainstream churches; particularly Uniting, Anglican, and Catholic (Lutheran in some parts of the country); these are the people who are disproportionately active in community organisations in most communities around Australia. 

As a result, if it’s hard times for the mainstream churches, it will be hard times for many voluntary community organisations around Australia.  Because the people who attend Uniting, Anglican, and Catholic churches are the same people who are the backbone of just about any community organisation you can name.  And there isn’t really anyone else who really is picking up the slack.
  • It’s not the people who consciously reject organised religion.  A large percentage of these people are also uninvolved in other community organisations.
  • Neither is it the people who are involved in the more intensely “religious” sort of churches.  A large percentage of these are not involved in community groups outside their religious activities.
Neither group is really there in great numbers in voluntary community organisations in most locations, at least not as much as the members of mainstream congregations.

While there are some great community-minded people among members of the other faith communities in Australia (Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and so on), we can’t expect these communities to pick up the slack at the moment.  These groups are still far too small to have an impact on their communities, except in a very few suburbs of capital cities.

For better or worse, if we expect to live in healthy communities, we also need to have healthy mainstream Christian churches, particularly Uniting, Anglican, and Catholic.  It is these churches that provide most of our communities with their supply of community-minded people. 

And so, the disturbing statistics that the papers report regarding the future of mainstream churches have equally disturbing implications for the health of our commnuities:
  • Fewer Catholics attending Mass may also mean fewer volunteers for Meals on Wheels.
  • Fewer Anglican communicants may have negative implications for local branches of the CWA, Rotary, or Lions.
  • Reduced membership in Uniting Church congregations may also mean reduced volunteers for hospital auxiliaries.
So when churches like ourselves are mocked or even condemned in the public sphere, it’s not just an affront to our dignity, it is a potential threat to the quality of the life of our wider communities.

In our lesson, Paul wrote words of encouragement to a local congregation in a city called Colossae.  Some people (probably a few different groups) were troubling the Colossian Christians, saying things like:  “Are you sure you’re ‘religious enough’? ... Are you sure that the faith you have embraced is ‘good enough’?  We’ve got all sorts of difficult rules and regulations so you can be sure ... so you can be definite ... that you’re ‘religious enough’.” 

In this situation, Paul wrote words of encouragement to the Colossian church, words of great energy and passion. 
... Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons and sabbaths. ...
... Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement ...

It was obvious that Paul was angry with those who were piling up requirement upon requirement to the worshippers at Colossae.

There are plenty of people who mock and even condemn congregations like ourselves:
  • Some are people who are uncomfortable with any sort of religious faith, who prefer to mock what they cannot understand.
  • Others are people with a very intense style of Christian faith, who despise us for being much less intense in our faith, and much less willing to condemn the beliefs and behaviours that they would condemn.  (Perhaps, if they lived two thousand years ago, they would also have mistrusted Jesus for his unwillingness to condemn others.)
For mainstream churches today, we need to hear Paul’s words of encouragement to the Colossian church.  They are also words of encouragement to churches like ourselves, when we are simultaneously subjected to mockery from the broader community and condemnation from the more intense sort of churches.
Do not let anyone condemn you ...
Do not let anyone disqualify you ...

Paul’s words are words of encouragement for churches like ourselves today. 
Be encouraged!  Hang in there!  “Do not let anyone condemn you ...”. 

Monday, 22 July 2013

Racism, bigotry, and just plain stupidity

There's been a bit of confusion in recent years over the way we use the term racism.

When I learned the term, a racist was a person who believed that his/her own racial/ethnic/cultural group was innately superior to other racial/ethnic/cultural groups.  Racism, then, was any behaviour that followed from that belief.

Actual racism needs a whole range of supporting nonsense to go with it:  usually including pseudo-history, pseudo-science, pseudo-philosophy, and sometimes even pseudo-theology.

Actual racism, thankfully, is very rare.

Sometimes, however, we use the term racism when we mean bigotryBigotry is far more common than racism.

Bigotry is an irrational dislike of all the members of any particular racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural group, merely because they happen to be Jewish, or Aboriginal, or Muslim, or Catholic, or African, or gay, or Mormon ... or whatever.  Usually bigots spend less time thinking about their bigotry than racists spend thinking about their racismBigots don't think the people they don't like are innately inferior, they just don't like them.  Some bigots "catch" their bigotry from their parents, and may say things like "I don't like the Irish (...or whoever...) because my parents and grandparents didn't like the Irish."

But then there are some people who really don't have a racist or bigoted bone in their bodies, who get caught up in this as well.  With a total absence of any ill will, they sometimes say absolutely stupid and offensive things about members of other racial, religious, ethnic, or cultural groups, and then are amazed when people take offense at the comment.  They often defend themselves by saying, "But some of my best friends are Polish (... or whoever...) and they thought the joke was funny."

For this third group, their frequently offensive comments are part of a broader personal context of coarse language, adolescent humour, and crude behaviour. 
  • Crude racial terms take their place alongside other X-rated language. 
  • Racial or sectarian jokes take their place alongside "blue" jokes and fart jokes. 
While they need to realise that their comments are offensive, it doesn't help anyone to treat the idiot loudmouth at the local pub as if he's a Goebbels or a Verwoerd.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Martha: one big strength and three areas of growth -- a sermon (Luke 10:38-42)

Over the years, in various congregations, after I’ve preached on today’s gospel passage about Mary and Martha, I’ve often received a reaction from some of the women in the congregation – particularly women who’ve followed more traditionally domestic lifestyles - about how they feel Jesus may have treated Martha a bit too harshly. 

I disagree with this view. 

First of all, Luke’s description of this incident was described in the briefest possible terms, like most of Jesus’ encounters in the gospels.  We only hear Martha’s complaint and Jesus’ immediate response.  We don’t get any of the rest of the conversation, which Luke decided (or whoever edited the gospel decided) may not have been relevant to his readers.  And Luke’s initial readers, please remember, were generally assumed by most New Testament scholars to have been Graeco-Roman gentiles:
  • people who were not used to feisty Jewish women talking back to their menfolk,
  • people who were used to men speaking harshly and dismissively toward women. 
Perhaps Luke, either wittingly or unwittingly, either by what he included in his text or by what he didn’t include in his text, turned Jesus into a bit of a Graeco-Roman sexist in this passage (unlike the view of Jesus we find elsewhere in Luke's gospel). 
  • For example, we don’t know if Jesus’ response to Martha may have been followed by the words “Sit down for a while, Martha, and join in the conversation.  Dessert can wait.”
  • Or else, we don’t know if Jesus response to Martha may have been followed by him volunteering to do the washing-up, and enlisting a few disciples to help.  (“Thomas, … Andrew, ... and Matthew, ... I think it’s your turn ….”)
Secondly, even if we take the passage on face value, this passage about Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha shows Martha having one major area of strength, and three areas of real potential growth.  In her areas of potential growth, she seems to have needs very similar to many people - of either gender - in our own day.  In her area of strength, she shows a quality which I believe is desperately needed in our society today - by people of both genders.  I’ll start with her area of strength.

Martha’s big area of strength was hospitality.

Hospitality is, in many ways, becoming a lost art in our society.  The very fact that restaurants, hotels, pubs, and similar commercial establishments are now called the “hospitality industry” indicates that proper, non-commercial hospitality is becoming increasingly rare.

We are becoming an increasingly private, increasingly individualised society.  More and more individuals and families are retreating behind their fences, walls, doors, and locks.  We live in a time when people are less and less willing to open the doors of their homes to friends, neighbours, and acquaintances.  This is due to a number of reasons, one of which is an increased fear of crime; itself more the result of an irresponsible media than of the actual levels of crime.  (Fact:  An Australian today is much less likely to die as the result of a violent crime today than was an Australian 100 years ago.)

In addition to the increased fear of crime, there is also just a decreased interest on the part of many people in the community in getting involved with other people.  The tendency is to draw the wagons into a circle and retreat into the comfortable fortress of the family.  For those people, then, who live alone, this can be an agonisingly lonely time in which to live.

But, in our lesson, Luke speaks of Martha welcoming Jesus into her house.  She didn’t merely accept his presence.  She actively welcomed him.  While such hospitality was a significant part of the culture in that day, it is a sorely needed corrective to the over-individualism of our culture today.

And the Greek word Luke used to speak of Martha serving her guests was the word diakonia, from which we get our English word deacon.  In describing Martha’s service to her guests, the word Luke used at least potentially had the implication that her hospitality was a ministry, that her hospitality was something sacred.

Martha’s big strength was hospitality, and let us not forget that.  

Martha’s first area of growth was her attitude to work.

Luke tells us that Martha “was distracted by her many tasks”.  Perhaps, we’d say that Martha was a “workaholic”- like many people are today. 

Workaholics are people who, like Martha, are often “distracted by ... many tasks”. 
  • They often see their personal worth as people only in the things that they do, not in their being able to just ... be. 
  • They are often unable to encourage - or even to let - someone else take over one of their tasks.
  • Workaholics are unable to stand back from the task at hand and say, “Well, tomorrow’s another day.  It’s time to relax.”  
And, when it’s crunch time, many workaholics will blow up about those who have a healthier attitude toward their work and leisure, saying things like Martha said:  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Like many workaholics today, Martha needed to learn to relax.  In part, I think Jesus was encouraging Martha to take a much-needed rest, just as Jesus keeps encouraging us to do the same.

Martha’s first area of growth was her attitude to work.

Martha’s second area of growth was spirituality.

Like many busy people today, and like most workaholics today, Martha seemed to neglect her spirituality.  She seemed to resent the fact that her sister was able to make her own spiritual development a priority, asking Jesus the deep questions about life’s meaning.  Perhaps she was a bit jealous.  Perhaps in complaining, she was trying to stake her own claim on Jesus’ time.

And we, today, live in a time in which many people are seeking to rediscover and recover a sense of spirituality. 
  • For many, the focus is on indigenous spiritualities, or a spirituality based on environmental concerns. 
  • For others there is a real attraction to the classic spiritualities of Asia, of Hinduism and Buddhism.
  • For many others, there is a fresh appreciation of the possibilities of Christianity as a source of a renewed spirituality.  For example, every year thousands of people, particularly young people, from around the world descend on a small village in France - a village called Taizé - to share in the life, the prayer, and the music of the ecumenical community of monks in that place.  And there are similar revivals of interest in Celtic Christian spirituality, and in many of the classic aids to Christian devotion that many of us who grew up in Protestant churches were unfortunately taught to dismiss as “Catholic stuff” or “Orthodox stuff”.
As part of this reappreciation of the possibilities of Christianity, there are many Christians today who are seeking to learn more about their faith.  Some participate in organised study programmes such as “Living the Questions” or “Alpha” (at very different ends of the theological spectrum).  Some are involved in courses in theological colleges.  Many are seeking to explore the points of contact between the three related faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  All of this is very important.  A Sunday School faith, a Confirmation Class faith, or a youth group faith is not an adequate faith for an adult Christian. 

For many people, in our very busy world, there is an increased interest in cultivating their spirituality and their knowledge of their faith.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

In Jesus’ words to Martha, there was an invitation to her to explore and cultivate her own spirituality, just as Jesus keeps inviting us to do the same.

Martha’s second area of growth was spirituality.

Martha’s third area of growth was crossing the boundaries.

Jesus gave great emphasis to crossing the artificial boundaries between people that society set up: 
  • boundaries between the rich and the poor,
  • boundaries between Jews and Samaritans,
  • boundaries between lepers and healthy people,
  • boundaries between men and women. 
Jesus would have appreciated this quality in others.

Mary crossed the boundaries as well.  In her day,
  • rushing around serving a visitor was definitely “women’s business”, while
  • sitting and talking with a visiting rabbi was definitely “men’s business”.
Martha may have been a bit less adventurous, socially and culturally, than her sister.  According to the standards of their day, Martha “knew her place”, while Mary didn’t.  Both then and now, Jesus has a great appreciation for people who don’t “know their place”.  However, perhaps Martha thought Jesus would have been shocked by Mary’s behaviour, and so she complained about her sister ... she complained to save the family’s honour.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Perhaps Jesus responded from his own commitment to crossing the artificial boundaries that society sets up.  Perhaps Jesus wanted to encourage Martha to cross a few boundaries of her own, as Jesus keeps encouraging us to do the same, to cross the artificial social boundaries our culture sets up.

Martha’s third area of growth was crossing the boundaries.

Despite the occasional bit of sermon feedback over the years, I believe Jesus responded to Martha with great gentleness and sensitivity.  Recognising Martha’s great gift of hospitality, Jesus encouraged her to grow in those areas where she needed to grow:
  • in her attitude to work,
  • in her own spiritual development, and
  • in crossing society’s artificial boundaries.
Perhaps for us all – whatever our gender - these are areas of growth for the Martha inside each of us as well.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Aux armes, citoyens, let every stage send her victorious by the dawn's early light: some reflections on national anthems

July is a month for national anthems.  Any number of heavy-duty countries (the US, France, Canada ...) celebrate their national days in July.

As a result, July is a good month to look at national anthems.  Many countries have extra reasons to play their national anthems during July.

Some countries have their anthems about events.  For example, the United States' national anthem The Star-Spangled Banner is based on the events of a battle during the War of 1812.  It's set to a tune that's great for brass bands, but next to impossible for the human voice.  This is why the annual mangling of the national anthem has become a Super Bowl tradition in the United States.

Other countries have their anthems about individuals.  The British national anthem God Save the Queen (at least at times when it's not God Save the King) is partly a prayer for the monarch's well-being and partly a toast to the monarch's virtues.

The Netherlands has an anthem about one of their previous kings.  Every four years, it's played a lot during the Olympics, at the swimming.  It's sung to a tune very similar to The Twelve Days of Christmas, so I assume it goes something like:

On the fourth day of the swimming
The Olympics gave to me
Gold to the Dutch,
Silver to China,
Bronze to the Yanks,
And Australia in fourth again.

Speaking of Australia, both Australia and Canada have calm, sober, suburban anthems that speak of their nations' natural beauty, productive agricultural land, and industrious people, a bit like Garrison Keillor describing Lake Woebegone as a community where "all the children are above average".  In both these countries, the "official" anthem often takes second place in people's minds to unofficial anthems:
  • Many Australians prefer Waltzing Matilda to Advance Australia Fair.  The only problem with this is that the government's spinmeisters have problems with the notion of a national anthem featuring a homeless man committing suicide to avoid arrest.
  • In Canada, sentiments are definitely split between the official anthem O Canada and the sentimental favourite I'm a Lumberjack, I'm OK!

The title of New Zealand's anthem, God Defend New Zealand, is interesting on two grounds.  On the one hand, NZ is probably the least religious of any of the English-speaking nations.  On the other hand, the only enemies the Kiwis have are on the rugby field.  (And, besides, the Haka - the Maori war dance performed by the All-Blacks before the match - functions as NZ's unofficial national anthem and has a higher claim on popular emotions.)

The French anthem La Marseillaise is both the most bloodthirsty anthem and the anthem traditionally viewed as the most inspirational by people outside the nation's boundaries.  (Think of the La Marseillaise scene in Casablanca, for example.)  In the inspiration category, La Marseillaise has received competition in recent years from South Africa's Nkosi Sikelele Afrika, a favourite of many community choirs around the world.  (Nevertheless, anyone attending a Rugby World Cup is advised to get tickets for any scheduled match between France and New Zealand.  Even if the match itself is a dud, the combination of the Haka and La Marseillaise beforehand is guaranteed to make it a memorable evening.)

With German reunification in the early 1990s, a new anthem was needed.  The eventual decision was to take the tune of the older (and historically problematic) anthem Deutschland Über Alles and give it a more "politically correct" set of words.  (Note, given the historical context of 20th century Germany, the phrase "politically correct" is given the best meaning possible here.)

After the old Soviet Union disbanded, the Russians engaged in a bit of dithering, anthem-wise.  Finally, the powers-that-be in Moscow came up with an inspired idea.  They took the tune of the old Soviet-era anthem and decided it did not need any words. 

Think of this for a moment, a wordless national anthem!  You don't have to struggle to remember the words when singing it.  You don't have to struggle with the high notes.  There's no embarrassment if you disagree with the politics, theology, or historical interpretation expressed in the anthem.  Nevertheless, at an international sporting event, you can stand for the anthem and give a rousing cheer at the end. 

Perhaps the notion of a wordless national anthem is an idea whose time has come.

Monday, 8 July 2013

“You are the weakest link. Goodbye.”: a sermon (Luke 10: 25-37)

Can anyone remember the TV game show “The Weakest Link”?   The Australian version was on TV around twelve or so years ago.  Intererstingly, the British version was still on TV when we were last in the UK six years ago.  I think there was also a US version, which I don't remember ever seeing.

Periodically, members of the teams competing were asked to vote one of their members off. The host of the programme, in a deliberately supercilious manner, then declared to the departing contestant, “You are the weakest link, goodbye.”

In many different ways, our culture says this to people: “You are the weakest link, goodbye.”

It’s like that in the world of work. In many workplaces, the deadly philosophy of economic rationalism has reduced the value of people to that of mere inputs into the process of production. And for those whose input is not as profitable as the person at the next desk or the next machine: “You are the weakest link, goodbye.”

It’s like that today in politics. There are many politicians on all sides of politics who still follow the destructive policies of the 1980s. They believe in welfare for the rich and free enterprise for the poor. And, for those who happen to fall by the wayside: “You are the weakest link, goodbye.”

Our gospel lesson points us in a radically different direction. It’s a result of a time when a lawyer asked Jesus a lawyer’s question.

It all began innocently enough, even if it became a verbal tennis match. A lawyer asked Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Realising that a simple, straightforward answer is not always terribly helpful, Jesus replied by asking the lawyer some questions of his own: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

The lawyer replied with what was the appropriate Jewish answer. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.”

There were no surprises there. It was, as I said, the appropriate Jewish answer.
  • It was the “mainstream” answer.
  • It was the “pukka” answer.
  • It was even the “politically correct” answer.
  • And, what is more, it was even a good answer.

Advantage, lawyer.

The lawyer had given a good answer and Jesus affirmed it: “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”


But the lawyer felt a bit silly. It may have felt a bit like a rocket scientist being praised for his skill in basic arithmetic. So “to justify himself”, as we’re told by Luke, the lawyer decided to save a bit of face by asking Jesus a lawyer’s question. He asked Jesus to define his terms. He asked for a legal definition, with:
  • plenty of scope for interpretation,
  • loopholes around every corner,
  • sufficient room to wiggle your way out of anything unpleasant.

“And who is my neighbour?” he asked.

Advantage, lawyer.

Instead of giving a definition, Jesus told a story.


A traveller was attacked by thieves who
  • beat him,
  • robbed him,
  • stripped him, and
  • left him by the side of the road - naked, unconscious, and almost dead. 

A priest and a Levite each passed by and did nothing. 

Just as a note, in those days, priests and Levites did not work full time in their religious duties. These were not people who made religion their life’s work out of a sense of call. They were priests or Levites because they came from families of priests or Levites. They were born to the job. And besides, most priests and Levites spent about one week out of a year at their religious responsibilities. Most of the time, they were businessmen: businessmen whose religious role gave them a bit of added status in their community. 

There were plenty of stories in Jesus’ day about priests and Levites failing to do the right thing when it came to the crunch. Priest and Levite stories then were a bit like lawyer jokes or economist jokes today. 

What was radical about the story that Jesus told was the person who did come to the rescue: a Samaritan. To be quite honest, Samaritans came off even worse than priests and Levites in people’s attitudes at the time.
  • Ethnically, the Samaritans were the descendants of Jews who did not have to go off to Babylon when Jerusalem was conquered five centuries before. They intermarried with other people living in the area.
  • Religiously, the Samaritans practised what seemed to be a simplified and old-fashioned form of Judaism.
  • Politically, many Samaritans were inclined to collaborate with the Roman colonial government.

For these, and other, reasons, Samaritans were not popular people. By placing a Samaritan in this role in his story, as an example of a good neighbour, Jesus challenged the lawyer at the core of his values. Jesus shocked the lawyer by casting a Samaritan in this role.

A question: If Jesus was telling this story for the first time ... to you ... today ..., whom would he cast as the Samaritan to make this story as shocking for you as it was for the lawyer? ... an Aborigine? ... a Muslim? ... a Jew? ... a Catholic? ... a homosexual? ... a banker? ... a lawyer? ... a trade unionist? ... a greenie? ... an economist? ... a paedophile … or ... someone else entirely?

By making the Samaritan the hero of his story, Jesus profoundly shocked the lawyer. We can only really hear this story as the lawyer heard it if we hear the story with a similar level of shock.

After telling the story, Jesus posed another question to the lawyer: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

Advantage, Jesus.

It’s sad to say that the lawyer couldn’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan”. All he could say was, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said: “Go and do likewise.”

Game, set, and match.

We live in a culture
  • that scorns the weak,
  • that discounts the vulnerable,
  • that persecutes those who are markedly “different”,
  • that declares, to many different people in many different ways, “You are the weakest link, goodbye.”

In our culture and generation, as in every culture and every generation, Jesus presents us with a better alternative. A member of a minority community, despised by his neighbours, goes out of his way to assist one of these “weakest links.” And then,
  • sometimes gently, sometimes stridently;
  • sometimes softly, sometimes authoritatively;
  • sometimes suddenly, sometimes persistently;
  • sometimes as a courteous request, sometimes as a Sergeant-Major’s order;
  • sometimes when we least expect it, sometimes as obviously as the noses on our faces;
Jesus says to us, as he says to everyone: “Go and do likewise.”

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

In defense of politicians

Right.  Here goes.

I think we've all been much too hard on politicians.

There, I've said it. 

I'll say it again.  I think we've all been much too hard on politicians.

Like the rest of us, politicians are flawed human beings. 
  • A few politicians are unreasonably extreme in their views.  (A bit like the rest of us, really.)  And we've seen many examples of this lately.
  • A few politicians get unreasonably aggressive with each other.  (A bit like the way some non-politicians behave in their workplaces.)  And we've seen many examples of this lately.
  • A few politicians become corrupt in the course of their political careers (but not very many, really.)

In my experience, I've met many politicians, at a variety of levels, from a variety of perspectives, in a number of different nations. 
  • Some have views and policies with which I agree, and values which I sometimes find inspiring.
  • Some have views and policies with which I disagree, and values which I sometimes find frightening.
But the politicians I have had the privilege to know have this in common:  they are decent, honest, intelligent, generous people with a work ethic that is exceeded only by their ethic of service to the wider community.

Politician-bashing is a popular activity in Australia as it is in other western countries.  For those who enjoy politician-bashing, may I pose this question?

Which would you prefer?  To be governed by a group of politicians over whom you have the occasional power of choice (through regular, orderly elections)?   Or to be ruled over by a cabal of generals over whom you have no choice?

As for me, I'd choose the politicians over the generals any day.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Decline in mainstream churches: the real reasons

Talk to many worshippers in any mainstream denomination, in any country, particularly those worshippers who are old enough to remember the “golden” postwar era of full pews, and you’ll hear a variety of stories (some accurate, some embellished) of how things have declined in their congregations.

Ask them why the churches are declining, and you’ll hear a full range of conflicting theories as to who or what is to blame:  ... Sunday sport, ... Sunday trading, ... out-of-touch denominational leaders (either too conservative or not conservative enough, depending on the denomination – or on the individual making the comment), ... a poor quality of clergy training, ... a poor quality of clergy, ... parents who don’t force their children to attend Sunday School now, ... children who were forced to attend Sunday School in previous years now shielding their own kids from anything remotely resembling religion, ... and so on.

Ask what can be done about it, and you’ll hear a range of possible remedies, ranging from turning the church’s clock back to 1954 in its worship styles ... through copying slavishly the pattern of worship that seems to work well for some popular local fundamentalist congregation with a larger attendance than neighbouring churches ... to adopting the latest worship gimmick from the USA or the latest "fresh expression" from the UK.  

Actually, to look at the first question, I believe there are a number of reasons why many congregations of mainstream churches have declined since the '50s and early '60s. 

The first reason (and - in my opinion - the most important reason) is that there is no longer any pressure for people to attend church for non-religious reasons.  There was a time in past decades when many people attended churches and other worshipping communities for a range of secular reasons.  Involvement in a mainstream church or synagogue was something that was expected of many people if they were to be considered a constructive - and ethically serious - member of the community.  Churches and synagogues were among the few community bodies offering quality programmes for children and youth.  These situations are no longer the case, and haven't been since the late 1960s.  So the people who would have attended church for non-religious reasons a generation ago have stopped coming to church. 
A second reason is that many people with a lively spirituality wish to express their spirituality in an highly individualised manner.  A generation ago, if a person had a strong personal faith and spirituality, we could have made the reasonable assumption that she/he would be part of a congregation of some description.  That assumption is much less safe today.  Sadly, many of the most spiritual people in the community, in whatever terms they express their spirituality, practice it in isolation.

A third reason is that there are now a greater range of religious choices for those of us who want to be involved in worshipping God as part of a congregation with other worshippers.  A generation ago, people who wanted to attend public worship in a mid-sized Australian country town may have had a choice of five Christian denominations at most.  Today, the number of worshipping communities in the same town  (whether Christian or otherwise) would easily have doubled.  In urban and suburban areas, there is even more religious choice, without even counting those who choose to travel out of their area to attend their preferred congregations.

This happens in communities all over the western world.  People have a greater level of religious choice, which is a good thing.  This however  means that mainstream Christian denominations, who were once the only game in town in many communities, have a much smaller slice of the pie than was once the case.  Therefore there is this sense of decline for those of us in the mainstream Christian churches.

A fourth reason is seen in the serious pastoral errors made by many churches in recent decades.  Examples of these pastoral errors include (among others):
  • the woefully inadequate handling by many churches and faith communities (until comparatively recently) of cases of child sexual abuse by some clergy and by some other religious workers or volunteers,
  • the poor treatment by some denominations in decades past of couples involved in religiously "mixed" marriages,
  • the practice of selective baptism by some clergy and congregations in recent years, in which the children of parents who are not frequent worshippers were denied baptism.

A fifth reason is seen in the fact that many churches haven't told the story well of the changes that have taken place within their lives. 
  • For example, the ecumenical movement has radically changed for the better the attitudes of Christian churches and individuals toward each other.
  • To give another example, many mainstream Christian churches have changed their attitudes towards other living faiths (Judaism, Islam, etc.) for the better.
But still, many people in the wider community believe that the attitudes of the churches are still stuck in the pre-ecumenical "bad old days".

A sixth reason exists for churches within the classical "Protestant" strand of church life (for whom issues of decline are most critical).  For these churches, our overly cerebral, teaching-focused style of worship does not appeal to people who, if they do attend worship, seek to encounter the Sacred, not to learn further information about religion.

I believe all these factors will continue to be issues for local congregations for the foreseeable future.

To look at the second question, of what can we do about the decline of the mainstream churches, there really is no magic formula. 
  • Nevertheless, open-hearted and generous congregations, who continue to ask their wider communities, “What can we do to serve you?”  will always have a future. 
  • On the other hand, inward-looking congregations whose message to the wider community is “Here’s what you can do to serve us” have very little future.