We live in curious religious times. A spiritual renaissance of sorts is happening in the Western world, even as church attendance is in steep decline and less and less of our own children are walking the path of faith with us.
The church is generally blamed for the second-half of this equation, but the evidence mostly doesn’t point that way. Indeed, in some ways, life at the level of parish and church-community has never been more finely-tuned, more biblically literate, or more healthy liturgically than it is today. We have wonderful programs for nearly everything, a clergy that’s well-trained, and a laity that’s participating more and more in the ministry of the church. For the most part, at the level of parish-life at least, we’re doing a lot of things right.
But we’re less apt at something else. Today, it seems, we know what to do with someone who walks through our church doors, but we don’t know how to get anyone who is not already going to church to enter those doors. We are better at maintaining church life than at initiating it.
The reasons for this are complex and often are more bound to what’s happening in the culture than to any particular failure inside the churches. As Reginald Bibby points out, the high premium that we put on individuality within our culture is a bigger culprit than poor church services. Lack of space in our lives for the church, more than dissatisfaction with it, is the bigger issue. People, Bibby says, tend to treat their churches in the same way as they treat their families. They want that connection, even if they want to be left alone most of the time. Hence, just as our grown kids don’t come home all that often, they aren’t in church all that often either.
What’s to be done? What’s being asked of us?
I like something that the Canadian bishops said at the Synod of America in 1997. commenting on how the Catholic church in Canada had very much grown up inside of immigrant communities and how it had flourished there, the bishops commented: “In Canada we know how to be Catholic when we are poor, under-educated, and culturally marginalized, but we don’t yet know how to be Catholic when we are affluent, educated, and culturally mainstream. These things are new to us and we have still to find our way within them.” The situation, I suspect, isn’t much different for most Protestant and Jewish communities. Our faith communities tend to work much better in immigrant settings than in mainstream society.
If this is true, and I suspect it is, then what’s being asked of us today is that we find a new way to live out our faith within the affluence and sophistication of our culture.
How might that be done? Jesus tells us that we enter the kingdom of God more easily when we are poor, childlike, innocent, and helplessness. We had those qualities in abundance before we became affluent, educated, and sophisticated, but we had them by conscription, not by choice. They came with our place in society. Moreover we had them prior to having affluence, education, wide experience, and acceptance within the mainstream. Our innocence was a first-innocence, our poverty a first-poverty, and our reliance on God was often dictated simply by our helplessness. Faith and faith communities work well when there’s poverty, naiveté, innocence, and helplessness. They don’t work nearly as well within affluence, sophistication, and self-reliance.
The task for us then, however difficult, is to become post-affluent, post-sophisticated, post-critical, and post-self-reliant. We need to become “inner immigrants”, living out freely those qualities of poverty, innocence, and powerlessness that our economic, social, and educational status once forced on us.
But how do we become those things? That’s precisely the task. Our generation’s job is to learn what those things mean, enflesh them, and then pattern them for our children and for others to follow. Each generation of believers must, like the Jewish prophets, eat the word of God, digest it, and give it its own flesh. Giving faith to others, especially our own children, is not the simple task of handing on a treasure-chest of eternal truths, like one passes on a baton-stick in a relay race. Each generation, our own no less than any other, has first to give its own flesh to those truths.
One of our major faith-tasks then is to model a new way of being poor, innocent, chaste, and powerless inside of affluence, sophistication, experience, and the power and self-reliance these bring.
Oliver Wendall Holmes once commented that he wouldn’t give a fig for the innocence that lies on this side of sophistication, but would give his life for the innocence that lies on the other side of it. The task of our generation of believers is to find and model that innocence which lies on the other side of sophistication.