Almost four-and-a-half years ago, in July of 2012, I concluded full-time ministry and we returned home to Tasmania and a series of overlapping part-time ministry gigs. I started to describe myself as “semi-retired” (and, occasionally, as “recycled”).
A year ago, I formally retired as far as the Uniting Church in Australia, the Australian Tax Office, and my super fund were concerned, but nothing really changed in terms of my working arrangements at that point.
In about two years from now, I will reach that magic age of 65-and-a-half, when Centrelink considers me to be pensionable, and where there need be no “semi” at all in terms of my retirement.
Today however, as I conclude my time of casual supply ministry here at Sorell (even as my hospital chaplaincy gig continues), this is the main occasion in which my process of retirement is marked liturgically. So it gives me an opportunity ... particularly given some difficult, painful, and courageous decisions recently made by this congregation ... to reflect from a pulpit on the life of the church in fairly broad strokes … at least without making too much of a bore of myself.
Since well before the time of my ordination in late 1979, the continued decline of many mainstream churches has been a fact of life in most denominations.
Many theories have been advanced for this decline. Some of these theories are mutually contradictory.
Some say that the decline of the churches has been because the leadership of the churches has been too conservative and too out-of-touch with the contemporary world. Others say the decline is because the leadership of the churches isn’t conservative enough (or, I suppose, out-of-touch enough).
Some say that the decline of the churches has been because worship in many congregations has been too traditional. Others say that the decline has been because worship in other congregations hasn’t been traditional enough.
Some say that the decline of the churches has been because parents won’t expect their children to attend church. Others say that that the decline of the churches is because those who were forced to go church as children reacted by forcing their own kids not to go.
And in all these conflicting theories and assumptions, there are a few grains of truth and a few grains of falsehood.
Can I offer a few theories of my own as to the reasons for the seeming decline of so many churches in recent decades?
1. My first theory is that the time in history we use as a comparison to our own was a time of artificially inflated church attendance: the twenty years following the end of the Second World War. The period from 1945 to 1965 was a period in most English-speaking countries when a lot of people went to church, far more than was normal in previous decades. The decline we’re experiencing now is actually much closer to the normal levels of church participation in, say, the 1890s or 1920s. By comparing ourselves now to churches in the post-war years, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.
2. My second theory is that the religious “pie” is divided up into more slices now than it was in the post-war years. In a sizable Australian country town 60 years ago, there may have been between four to seven churches: C of E, RC, Methodist, Presbyterian (particularly in Victoria), perhaps Baptist, perhaps the Sallies, Brethren in Tasmania (particularly in the North and North-West), Lutheran if you were in South Australia or Queensland, and that was it. Double that number of congregations today. With a smaller percentage of the population going to church in the first place, more congregations make the sense of decline even greater.
3. My third theory is that people who used to go to church for non-religious reasons have stopped going to church. My worship professor at Princeton once told us to remember that some of the people we’d be preaching to would be agnostics. He was a bit behind-the-time when he said this in 1975, but there was a time in the post-war years when a number of agnostics went to church. It was how people demonstrated that they were positive, respectable, civic-minded members of the community. You get involved in a local church of some respectable denomination (even if you didn’t really believe much of it). However, by the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it was no longer necessary to go to church to show you were a “solid citizen”, and this showed in the decline in attendance.
4. My fourth theory is that the churches haven’t told their story of recent years very well.
- Many of our neighbours haven’t picked up the little fact of the ecumenical movement, for example. There was a time – in many of our lifetimes - when many Christians were very bigoted toward other Christians. For those of us who are regular worshippers, this is a thing of the past. For many who are not regular worshippers, this little bit of news hasn’t quite registered.
- Similarly, our attitudes as Christians has changed for the better toward people of other living faiths – Jews, Muslims, and others. You get a few weirdos who try to whip up some religious bigotry in the community, but these mostly are people who don’t hang out in churches much.
- Most churches are much more welcoming now than we were a few decades ago to single parents, unmarried couples, divorced people, or same-gender couples.
- Most churches have made their peace with science.
- Most churches have largely given up the idea that God will send people to be fuel for an eternal BBQ merely for getting their theology wrong.
- Et cetera … et cetera.
All of this is old news to most of us, but it’s not old news to many of our neighbours. This may be something they’ve never heard. It may be part of the reason why we don’t see them in worship.
5. And then there’s a fifth theory of mine, one that applies more to the Uniting Church and to similar churches elsewhere.
For churches like ours, a big aspect to our decline is because of the strong emphasis on teaching and learning that dominates our gatherings for worship, regardless of a particular congregation’s theological emphasis, worship style, or size; and regardless of whether the “teaching-learning” component takes the form of a traditional sermon or some other form.
I believe that, if a person turns up at a worship service, the main reason is not that the person wants to learn information about religion. Seriously, there are many other– far better – ways to learn information about religion than turning up at a worship service.
A person who attends worship – whether regularly or occasionally – does so to encounter and to experience the God whom the congregation worships, not merely to learn information about religion.
- That’s why I believe all congregations need to celebrate Holy Communion far more frequently than many of us do.
- That’s why I believe we need to have far more silence as part of our worship, and particularly as we gather for our worship, than many of us do.
- That’s why I’m frequently tempted, whenever someone greets me after church with “Nice sermon”, to ask “And what was wrong with the rest of the service?”
For our Uniting Church – and for similar churches overseas – I believe much of our current malaise as a denomination is based - at least in part - on our teaching-learning worship style.
- It leads some people to assume “If I disagree with what I hear in worship here, I’d better shop around for another congregation – or even for another denomination – where the preacher agrees with me.”
- It leads other people to assume “I’ve heard all this before. Last Sunday had to be at least the eighth time, I’ve heard someone preach on the Good Samaritan. Perhaps I’ve learned everything this church can teach me. Perhaps it’s time for me to graduate from church and do something else with my Sunday mornings.”
And both the “church-shopper” and the “church graduate” are results of our strongly “teaching-learning” style of church life.
Despite our current malaise as a church, I am strongly committed to the ongoing life of the Uniting Church.
- I celebrate the fact that the vast majority of UCA congregations – including every one I’ve ever served - maintains an “open table” at Holy Communion.
- I celebrate the UCA’s commitment to women serving in every ministry of the church.
- I celebrate the UCA’s inclusion of people of all sexualities in our church’s life.
- I celebrate the UCA’s commitment to its ecumenical and interfaith relations, and to its covenantal relationship with indigenous people.
If, in all this, I’m also observed to be a Uniting Church minister who is frequently found in Anglican, Catholic, or Quaker pews, please regard this behaviour as part of the spiritual dimension of the self-care in which the Uniting Church’s Code of Ethics asks all of our ministers – active and "recycled" – to engage. For my own spirituality to be healthy, I sometimes need to experience worship with a more obvious sense of God's presence than is sometimes found in some of our UCA congregations. If this makes you uncomfortable, please note that this is not my intention.
Even in the midst of the decline experienced by many churches, the Table around which we gather is still our source of hope.
- Even as the churches experience dwindling numbers, the risen Christ still greets us at the Table.
- Even as the churches experience dwindling prestige, the crucified Christ still offers us himself in the bread and the wine.
- Even as the churches experience dwindling influence, the incarnate Christ still becomes one with us as food and as drink.
Thanks be to God, the Trinity of Love. Amen.