Margaret Wente is a columnist with the Globe & Mail and I like reading her when I get the chance. I particularly like her willingness to be direct about herself and the world she sees around her. That directness is on display in an article I read last summer (took me a while to get to writing about it), about what she calls The Collapse of the Liberal Church. By “Liberal Church”, she means churches like the United Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and our own Anglican Church. Here’s what she writes about the American wing of the Anglican Church (called the Episcopalian Church):
All the secular liberal churches are collapsing. In the United States, the Episcopalians – facing many issues similar to those of the United Church – have lost a quarter of their membership in the past decade. They’re at their lowest point since the 1930s. Not coincidentally, they spent their recent general meeting affirming the right of the transgendered to become priests. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it doesn’t top most people’s lists of pressing spiritual or even social issues.
By all means, read it all.
Those numbers are quite a downer, and her criticism is very pointed. So why do I mention it? I mention it because Margaret Wente isn’t your garden-variety church hater. She attends occasionally, and has had positive things to say about that experience. Neither is she a fundamentalist criticizing the liberalism of the church. She would probably call herself a progressive on social issues, and like the quote mentions above, she is often supportive of the progressive causes which the church takes up. Her main point is not that she disagrees. Her main point is this:
According to opinion polls, people’s overall belief in God hasn’t declined. What’s declined is people’s participation in religion. With so little spiritual nourishment to offer, it’s no wonder the liberal churches have collapsed.
Of course, there are a lot of reasons contributing to the decline of church participation, including things as mundane as Sunday shopping. But Wente’s point hits hard: by working so eagerly to become relevant to our culture, the church seems to have neglected its core message. People don’t seem to find it a spiritual place anymore, despite its many good works. And spirituality is supposed to be at the church’s core.
Wente asks, “if you’re passionate about the environment, why would you join the church eco-justice committee when you could just join Greenpeace instead?” That question really hits it on the button, and goes a long way to answering why the decline in liberal churches has been so pronounced. What does the church offer that the surrounding culture does not? I think the answer’s simple: Jesus.
Yes, we do many of the same things as other agencies, like the United Way or Greenpeace, but we are different, and we have something to offer that they do not. We are different because Christ is our Head. It is he who holds up the vision of righteous, self-sacrificial living we are to follow. It is he who inspires and equips us to live it out. Our love of neighbour flows out of Jesus’ sacrificial and ever-present love for us.
Good deeds alone don’t inspire people. Relevance alone doesn’t inspire people. People need more than that—they need meaning in what they do, and the confidence that they are wrapped up in something or Someone greater than themselves. The plunging membership statistics in our churches suggest that our good deeds have failed to inspire the culture around us. This should make us ask whether we are bold enough in proclaiming that the risen Lord’s power is working in us. He is the Lover of our souls, and the Helper of the burdened. That is something the cynical and demoralized world around us longs to hear, and which offers them hope for a better life. And that is something we would do well to remember.