Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 10 October 2011
“Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love.” (Songs of Solomon 2:5)
A) Changing Climate
George Barna and Mark Hatch has predicted a general decline of Church attendance through the Millenium since 2001. From a high Church attendance of 49% in 1991, to 40% in 2000, and to a low of 35% in 2010. Worse, it is still declining. The statistics are grim:
(Statistics adapted from George Barna and Mark Hatch, Boiling Point – How Coming Cultural Shifts Will Change Your Life, Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2001, p213)
Looking at the numbers can be depressing. Apart from small group growth, which is holding relatively well, all the other numbers are dropping across the board. In North America, small churches are getting smaller. Those who leave their churches flock to Megachurches. Growth is hardly due to new converts but believers moving through revolving doors from one church to another. What do we make of this changing climate? Is it due to a jaded sense of religion, or is it simply a sign of the church unable to change with times? Angela Kiesling consolidates some of the reasons why people are leaving churches. Let me highlight three.
B) Reason #1 – Consumerist Mindset
The first reason is a consumerist mindset a typical Church attendee brings to the Church. Such a consumer Christian wants:
- Lots of choices in Church programs, options that are catered to one’s personal preferences
- Church to provide a product/service while members return a 'favour' by their attendance
- No connection to the community interests except for one’s personal spiritual needs
- When one does not feels the Church is meeting one’s needs, off they go.
- Deny openly but practice a form of “Ask not what I can do for the church, but what the Church can do for me.”
If we are honest ourselves, we will see some of their consumerist tendencies pluck a sensitive string in our consumerist heart. That is not all.
C) Two Other Reasons – Era & New Communities
The second reason is based on which era we are born. If we are born before 1940, chances are we tend to be loyal in Church attendance. More often, we give structures and people in leadership the benefit of the doubt. If we are part of the Boomer generation born between 1940-1960, we tend to be more open to stay in traditional religion. If we are the Busters (1960-1984), we stay on the fence, waiting to see whether something is relevant to us or not, before deciding on change. Sometimes, these parents will simply choose church going on the basis of their children's needs. Those born after 1984 (Gen X) are more impatient and apt to change at the slightest disappointment. If these findings are correct, it more than verifies and explains the declining level of church attendance. In other words, we have a problem of archaic church structures that is increasingly unable to adjust to the changing population mix. For example, how can a Boomer-church make sense to a congregation filled with more Busters and Gen X? Is it then any surprise that pre-Boomer-style churches attract pre-Boomer and some Boomer people only?
The third reason is because of a more complex and sophisticated need that churches are not responding soon enough. While some churches are declining, others are growing. It is a decline of the old, but growth of a new. While the young tends to shy away from traditional religion, that does not mean that they are discarding the faith altogether. In other words, the decline is only for ‘traditional churches’ and NOT new forms of church. This explains the rise of new emergent churches that are full of young people and apparently meets the needs of ‘consumerist’ people as well as a changing landscape. Nate Krupp writes of three new types of ‘wine skins’ namely, the open Church, cell church and house church, where these people believes that the church is a community of believers gathered in the name of Jesus. Unfortunately, one church's gain is another church's loss. What is also not helpful is the increase of members who prefer individualized religion rather than community.
Kiesling warns of a 'Lone Ranger' Christian.
"Inherent dangers lurk anytime believers try to live a Lone Ranger existence, apart from other Christ-followers. We need each other." (Angela Kiesling, Jaded, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004, p124)
How then do we respond to a consumerist, a cultural age gap, and an individualized kind of faith?
D) Refreshment and Renewal
It is important that when we read statistics like these, and the attempts to analyze them, we do not lose sight of the presence of faithful sheep among us. For every one person who leaves a Church, there is also a responsibility to take care of those who are still attending. For both, who faithfully come, or are not coming, it is also important to note that BOTH groups need refreshment and renewal. The faithful attendee needs to be refreshed in the Lord, to have their faith in God renewed week after week. We cannot presume that people who leave the Church automatically leave the faith as well. No! Instead of criticizing their decisions, we need to understand them. When we understand the reasons for their leaving, not only can we learn, we share Christlikeness of love and understanding with them.
Most crucially, our desire for refreshment and renewal must stem from LOVE. We need to be careful of two errors we make when trying to woo back the sheep or to fast-forward our spiritual recovery.
Firstly, do not focus on programs. It looks too commercial. It is tempting to try to renew people’s interest by throwing in better programs. This makes the Church look more like a spiritual station dishing out religious variety shows.
Secondly, do not depend on a powerful preacher. It breeds a cult culture. It is also tempting to throw in a charismatic speaker to inspire people. Unfortunately, this makes the Church become like a one-man-operated motivational speaker circuit. No. We come to Church to worship God, and not to meet our needs, though the latter can happen when the Spirit leads. Richard Foster reminds us about what worship leads to.
"To worship is to chance. As worship begins in holy expectancy, it ends in holy obedience. Holy obedience saves worship from becoming an opiate, an escape from the pressing needs of modern life." (Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1978, p173)In other words, we do not come to God to change God to fit our needs. We come to let God change us to befit His glory. For that, we need help.
E) The Gift of Friends
Let me suggest that the key to recovery from jaded Christianity remains 'relational.' In a nutshell, a Christlike relationship has 3 components.
"Draw close to God. Let God draw you closer. Together, let God draw others closer through you."
Such a relationship cannot be done on our own strength, simply because our moods fluctuate from time to time. We need a community called the gift of friends to help one another link up.
The Songs of Solomon tell of a joyful and loving connection between a lover and his beloved. Bible scholars have long taken these songs to be the love poems of a man and a woman, or more specifically, King Solomon and his lover. A few other scholars have allegorized this as a conversation between God and human beings. I prefer to see it plainly as a man and a woman. There is no need for precise programming. There is no motivational speeches or clever remarks, save the deep emotional desire for each other. It is love. Renewal and refreshment must begin in LOVE. Love grows in the crucible of a relationship. This is the key theme in the Song of Solomon. The relationship is expressed through words of desire, hope, and love for each other.
SS 2:5 shows us that it is the LOVE that drives the beloved to long for the lover. She pleads for raisins to sustain her physical longing. She asks for apples to spread over her pining. It is not the raisins or the apple that is the key point. It is the LOVE that drives the cry for raisins and apples. Much like our modern worship. Do we let our desire for programs (raisin), and a yearning for apples (feel good) dictate our Church going? Or do we let our relationship with the Lord lead us to worship REGARDLESS of the building, the church programming, the facilities or all the external offerings? In other words, isn’t the Lord Jesus’ presence reason enough for us to go to Church?
I know some readers will argue back: “I love Jesus. I just need help to love him more.” Yes. I understand. Help is never from within ourselves, but always from outside. It is from the Lord, and the Lord often chooses to use community of believers. There is a third party in the lovely conversation between the Lover and the Beloved in the Song of Songs. Friends. The unspecified friends join in the chorus to affirm the desire of the beloved damsel for the Lover.
“We rejoice and delight in you; we will praise your love more than wine.” (SS 1:4b)
They mirror the excitement of the woman for the man, in such a way that the woman is encouraged. They also praise the woman for who she is, encouraging her for her work, and her search for her lover.
“If you do not know, most beautiful of women, follow the tracks of the sheep and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds.” (SS 1:8)
We need friends to encourage us in our spiritual journeys. We need friends to encourage us in our relationship with God. We need people to understand where we are, and also to understand others when they need us. Perhaps, when we are jaded about Church, it is not about the poor church programs, or mediocre sermons. It is probably not because there is a lack of desire to go to Church. It is more to do with a lukewarm faith. Such lukewarm faith can usually be traced back to a lack of spiritual friends.
Thought: “ . . . you could be a solitary wanderer, but you can’t be a solitary Christian.” (Eugene Peterson, The Wisdom of Each Other, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998, p25)
When all things fail, try love. Love never fails. Perhaps, you can try to remember a friend. Pray. Then call up that friend to say: "Hello. I thought and I prayed for you today. Want to catch up sometime?"
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