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.
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.