Last week a journalist came to church. He was covering the compulsory Easter story. He asked one of our staff – “Do you think people have stopped coming to church because they have internalised their faith?”
It was a strange question to ask as a huge number of people crowded into the Cathedral. Manifestly many people had not internalised their faith in such a fashion as to keep them from coming to church. The Cathedral was full, with people who wanted to sing with others the praises of the risen Lord Jesus. The congregation joined in prayers and listened quietly and attentively to the word of God being read and preached.
It was one of those questions that fits the journalists’ overarching story line. The journalistic community has a standard line on religion – “numbers are declining” and “people have given up on organised religion”. It is an old story coming out of the 1960’s and recycled annually at Easter and Christmas when the sheer weight of numbers attending on a slow news day forces some acknowledgment that religion still exists in our society.
However, each time journalists come, they look for another angle on the story. When they see the crowds they ask “Is it because of the financial worries of the Global Financial Crisis that so many people are now turning back to church?” Or “Are young people feeling alienated and depressed – is that why so many young people are here?” Or “Is it because Asians are more willing to accept authority structures that there are so many in church with you?” The question is framed differently each time but the assumption and overarching story line is the same: organised religion such as church attendance is in terminal decline. The question always assumes that nobody comes because they believe the gospel is true and want to fellowship with others to hear God’s word, pray to our Father and sing together his praises. Nobody comes because they want to – they are driven to it because of some other social or psychological necessity.
Rarely do journalists place their question in the larger reality of the decline in community involvement across the whole of society. The issue has been well documented and discussed (see for example “Disconnected” by Andrew Leigh). The membership of unions, political parties, sporting clubs, scouts and guides and all manner of voluntary associations have undergone significant decline in the last fifty years. To say nothing of the decline in newspaper publication and reading! This is an issue worth discussing and a context in which to discuss church numbers, but that is not raised. Rather, church and belief in God alone is in decline and why are there so many people attending church today?
The journalists’ questions come in part because journalists often live in their own separate community – viewing rather than participating in society. Trust is not part of their credo. Suspicion, especially of all authority figures, is their default position. The one group they listen to is fellow journalists where Christians are few and enjoyment of church not spoken of. Over the years I have encountered very few who have the faintest clue about being church members. It is like sending people who have no idea on sport to cover the football or cricket. Yet each journalist has their own story with God, as to what they believe and why they or their family are not connected to church.
So this year’s question “Do you think people have stopped coming to church because they have internalised their faith?” may reflect a personal truth. It is not so much a question of “Why are these people here?” as “Why am I not here?” The question may have been a silent testimony to his reason for not being part of something, for there are people who believe the truth of the gospel but have not found a way to express their faith in corporate fellowship. They do not deny the truth of the gospel but internalise it, neither expressing it to unbelievers nor sharing the joy of fellowship with believers. They have not worked out how to engage with other believers in their common faith.
It is a matter of great sadness that some Christian families endure: seeing their children unable to connect with the church youth group or continue with church going. As young adults they profess to still believe, but they just don’t feel part of the fellowship and cannot relate to church. Sometimes it is an event that causes a rift – a broken romance or an unkind word. Sometimes it is a failure to identify with a peer group – “none of my friends go to church” or “the youth group are all nerds”. Sometimes the church group is closed and cliquey, only really welcoming of people who can score amazingly good HSC results. Whatever the reason, wandering away from Christian fellowship can be matched by internalizing faith in Jesus.
However, this internalised faith will not stand the test of time, because faith comes from hearing the word of God, and true faith is seen in our loving service of others. Without regular exposure to the word of God the object of faith becomes a faint, fuzzy, alternative Jesus who reflects us more than we reflect him. And without regularly serving other people, we become part of society’s disconnected individuals – no longer loved or loving.
Church life, like family life, may not always be easy but is an essential part of being reconciled to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, for we are welcomed not only into relationship with God but also with God’s people.