Monday, May 15, 2017

The Modern Crisis for Churches . . . And What LPCC Will Do About It.

  In this post, I’ll explain why, if we don’t make some changes over at my church, it will die. 

Before I do so, however, I should paint, in a few broad brushstrokes, the world’s larger religious picture, as context. All the big world religions are growing. Islam, the world’s number two religion by size, is growing fastest, because it has the largest birthrate. Islam will equal Christianity in size within thirty or forty years. 

Christianity is growing too, though not 
Art Show Weekend at LPC
as quickly, due to a lower birthrate. One large unknown that might impact this picture is China. Christianity is growing rapidly there—perhaps exponentially. This could eventually add significantly to Christianity’s world numbers.

One important thing to note about both Christianity and Islam is that while both are growing in absolute terms, their inner makeup is also changing. Three types of Christianity are growing in the world. First, Pentecostalism that emphasizes healing, ecstatic worship, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Second, and overlapping Pentecostalism to some degree, is the “health and wealth” brand of Christianity. It promises earthly riches and rewards to the faithful—especially the generous faithful. Both of these types of Christianity also have traction in the United States, and to a lesser degree, in Canada. Third, Christianity that mixes elements of African religions are declaring independence from World denominations. 

Meanwhile, Islam is being reshaped by its encounter with Western culture, especially through mass media. Partly as a result, Islam is fracturing into new movements less dependent on traditional authority. This includes a significant Fundamentalist backlash in Islam, as well as more secularizing tendencies. At the same time, nearly all Muslims are deeply and negatively impressed by American support for Israeli Zionism, and especially the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza. Islamic hostility to Israeli policy and American support for such policy goes a long way to explaining the feeling we all have that there is a great deal of tension between Islamic and Christian peoples in today’s world.

In contrast to most of the world, however, in North America and Europe, religion—and especially Christianity—is in crisis. Fewer and fewer people are going to church in these places, even when those people self-identify as Christian; furthermore, the decline has been more pronounced among Mainline Christians than Evangelical Christians. 

In Canada, more people avoid church than go. Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby notes that thirty years ago forty-five percent of Canadians claimed to be religiously committed and active. That’s down to thirty percent today—less than one in three Canadians. What’s more, probably not more than fifteen or twenty percent of Canadians can be found in church on any given Sunday. Most religious “nones,” are not militant atheists. Instead, even though many will claim to be nominally Christian, they really haven’t given religion much thought, or drifted away from participation. What’s more, the younger you are, the more likely you are to belong to the “nones.”

So there you have it, a snapshot of where we’re at in Canada. Lawrence Park Community Church has not been immune from these trends. We’re located in an upper middle class neighborhood on Bayview across from Sunnybrook hospital. In the fifties and sixties we were a thriving congregation where as many as three hundred met weekly. 
Children listening to youth band "Pancake Lunch"
play Buffy Ste. Marie's "Universal Soldier."

These days, Lawrence Park averages about 100 weekly. My guess is that more than half of our members attend, on average, every third week or so. We have an active Sunday School and Youth Group.

Lawrence Park isn’t a stuffy church. No smells or bells or ancient prayers. Our near-professional choir, which includes paid section heads, sings every Sunday. We mostly hew to classical church music, but regularly mix it up with Jazz, secular rock and roll, and Broadway standards. This month we’re doing four weeks of all-Canadian music, from Buffy Ste. Marie to Leonard Cohen to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. We’ve come in costumes to a sanctuary decorated as the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz, had famous Canadians like Paul Henderson speak as guests, and sprinkled our pulpit with a fair showing of Jewish and Muslim speakers on topics like Sports in modern culture or how social media is reshaping Canada. We sponsor refugee families and raise tons of money for local and international charities. People come early, stay late, and take their coffees into the sanctuary. Our motto is, “United, Unlimited, Unorthodox.” 

Still, a Toronto marketing guru recently explained to us that if present trends continue and if we don’t make changes it is very likely that within twenty or so years Lawrence Park Community Church will die. 

But why? Why is Christianity in decline in the West? Why do fewer and fewer people go to fun and relevant churches like Lawrence Park Community Church?

In what follows, I’m going to focus on two basic kinds of issues that contemporary Christianity faces, especially in the West. One set of issues is more philosophical or ideological and the other set is more practical. And finally, I’ll say a word about the changes I hope we make at Lawrence Park to face up to these issues.

So first the ideological issues. In the secular West, there has been a society-wide switch from a modern outlook to a postmodern outlook. A thousand academic books, including my own Not Sure, have been written about this switch. Trying to sum it up in a word is treacherous. But the story goes something like this. 

Once upon a time people believed in science and progress. They believed in institutions and trusted people—mostly men—in authority. People experienced the postwar years as a boom time where they did better than their parents and exceeded their own expectations for themselves. The fifties and sixties were a consumer paradise of unexpected riches, of V8’s and bungalows, of Disney or cross country vacations, of near-universal university education and longer, healthier lives. Life was mostly good.

But some very ominous shadows clouded this post-war paradise. There was the memory of the holocaust and a fear of the human potential for evil. The Cold War confronted everyone with the possibility of nuclear holocaust. Vietnam and Watergate poisoned trust in politics. Between Elvis’ pelvis, hippies, tuning in and dropping out, long-held sexual or cultural mores came under sustained attack. Along the way there were several severe economic downturns too, along with growing alarm about urban crime, racism—or, as the case might be—civil rights; assassinations of leaders like Kennedy and King, and unending bad news on the environmental horizon. 

Over time, though people rarely remarked on it, the optimism, the belief in progress, the trust of science and authority that had marked North American life through the eighties was quietly unravelling. New cultural and spiritual trends marked our life together.

The first was a growing mistrust of authority. Polls began to note that the trustworthiness of religious ministers, politicians, lawyers, and captains of industry was plummeting. From Watergate, to the Sponsorship scandal; from Vietnam’s fake body counts to the residential school genocide of First Nation culture, from Canadian Aimee Lee Semple’s many bizarre scandals to Jimmy Swaggert’s or Jimmy Baker’s sexual escapades people had ample reason to distrust their leaders. 

Similarly, institutions came under suspicion, especially if they were large and powerful. Institutions, after all, had given us residential schools and depressions and pollution and wars and racism. They were impersonal and unresponsive to our needs. They gave us planned obsolescence and bureaucratic insensitivity. This distrust was perhaps best summed up in the words of Pink Floyd’s famous song from its album “Another Brick in the Wall.”

We don't need no education 
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
All in all it's just another brick in the wall

The problem here is that distrust in institutions and the power they wield in our lives is very hard to act on. What are you going to do? Not send your kids to school? Not be a Canadian citizen? Stop banking? Ditch OHIP? In fact, the one institution that people had little problem blaming and they could leave in large numbers was the church. And, expressing their new doubts about all leaders and institutions, people took the easy step of leaving the church, in droves.

A third feature of the shift from modern to postmodern attitudes is the growth of what I’ll call radical perspectivalism. The word of the year, in 2016, according to Oxford Dictionary, is post-truth. Nobody seems to care, anymore, what the fact checkers say. 

Now, instead of belief in god or progress or democracy, people tend to believe in anything but, with little or no reason for such far out beliefs than their prejudices. Creation out of nothing five thousand years ago? Global warming denial? Vaccines cause autism? Obama isn’t an American? It is all good. Modern people are spiritual—that is, they will believe in any touchy-feely spiritual intuition—but they are not religious. That is, they won’t let any tradition or scholar or church leader tell them anything about what really matters.

Add these trends together—suspicion of authority, including clergy; suspicion of institutions, especially felt by churches; and radical perspectivism, where everyone’s brand of post-truth is as good as what experts think—add this all together and you get a perfect storm for the churches. 

Now interestingly, all this hits mainline liberal churches much harder than it does conservative evangelical ones. People tend to say that this is because conservative doctrine makes more sense, is better grounded, than liberal theology. I’d argue, however, that conservative churches tend to do better than liberal ones because many people, upset or concerned by postmodern trends—often without understanding them—experience conservative churches as a refuge from postmodern trends. Liberal churches, on the other hand, have a much more nuanced view of both modernism and postmodernism—neither rejecting nor accepting either option whole, but engaging both. For a significant subset of the population, that sort of thoughtful engagement is exactly what they don’t want.

Furthermore, conservative churches have done better than liberal ones because they are willing to exercise a number of social and spiritual sanctions against those considering leaving. From shunning those who dare think on their own, to threatening the wayward with hell, conservative churches have the ability to call on what I see as unpalatable, but very effective means for keeping people on the straight-and-narrow.

I said earlier that there were a number of more philosophical or ideological issues facing the church, but there was another set that was more practical. Let me quickly run through those.

First, mainline churches, and especially the United Church, was ahead of the curve, compared to most of society, on cutting edge issues of sexual identity and practice. One very practical reason that the United Church lost so many members in the eighties was because it was one of the first important Canadian institutions to drop traditional condemnation of homosexual practice, and in fact, embrace nontraditional sexual mores. Ahead of the culture on this, and willing in a postmodern way to question old authority, many, many shocked people left the United Church. And by the time society largely had changed its own mind on homosexuality, society was ironically too busy painting all churches as hypocritical and judgmental on sexual issues to remember that it was not so in the United Church. 

Second, the unprecedented wealth of Western society, by historical standards, is a practical problem for Christianity. Suspicion of wealth is writ in Jewish and Christian genes. Writers of scripture have always guessed that too much wealth made people think they didn’t need God. Remember the prophet Amos, who is typical? "Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, ‘Bring us some drinks!’" Now, ironically, I would argue that thinking you need God to succeed in a harsh world is not actually a good reason for believing in God. Still, there is more faith in foxholes than in Yorkdale Malls, and when people are drinking and dancing, they have never ever been prone to religion. 

        Thirdthere has been a steep decline in deep word literacy. For a large number of reasons, people don’t read as much, as deeply, with as much understanding as they did only fifty years ago. I carefully examine the history of this phenomenon in my book, Not Sure. As a result of a loss of deep literacy the reasoned discourse that is so important for making judgements about institutions and the deeper threads of culture—this sort of rationality has all but evaporated except for an educated elite. The evaporation of this sort of rationality means that more and more people are willing to believe whatever preposterous things their religious or political leaders, or their intuitions and prejudices tell them. Loss of deep word literacy is a requirement for living in a post-truth society.

Fourth, our school system, over the past two-hundred years, modelled itself on the church. Schools were places where wise leaders poured knowledge and facts into the waiting receptacles of their students—like pastors and priests did with their congregations. The emphasis on status quo thinking, authority figures, and institutions was very modern in both school and church. 

However, the whole point of school, ultimately, is to graduate. And so the church model for school has come back to bite the church. These days, once youth get to the end of high school, or grad school, even if they love church, they tend to assume it is time to graduate—be confirmed—and leave. 

Other historical—indeed ancient—models for church that stress community, doing good for neighbours, and mutual support and encouragement have been forgotten in the mists of time. Remember, for example, that the church described in Acts didn’t meet so that a pastor could pour truth into empty vessels sitting in pews—no, they met every day to break bread together and to share with each other as each had need. These ancient models for church might well have more traction in a postmodern society than our traditional models.

Finally, although it is easy to miss this, it is probably as important a factor as any other. Life today, for all the material plenty many of us enjoy, life is often experienced as way too complicated and full of pressure. We work on our backhands, we are stuck in traffic, we don’t have enough time at home, we have to take kids to hockey or soccer practice, modern media keeps us tied to work twenty-four/seven, both parents work so time alone with family at home is a premium. What’s more, the two best times for doing church are in competition with other family survival activities. After work—church committee time—we’re stuck in traffic trying to get home to spend a bit of time with spouse or kids; and Sunday mornings, if we’re not into house league hockey, are one of the only times both parents can be home with the kids or truly away from work. So why leave home to sit in a school-like setting? 

So what will we do at Lawrence Park Community Church to deal with these trends? I’m pushing two initiatives. The first recognizes that what we do now is working pretty well for older folks still comfortable with the folkways of modernism. Our worship is both relaxed, but in terms of quality, sort of highbrow. I think we should admit that culture is fractured, and so go after specific segments rather than try to please everyone. I think we need to focus on the highbrow, educated, and well-healed crowd we already have on Sunday mornings.

     My vision is for a Sunday morning service that: 

     1. Always has a guest musician, one that usually does high quality music in a non-traditional church genre, such as jazz, folk, world music, and so on; 

     2. Regularly makes liturgical dance as part of our services. Such dance is done not only to music, but to the themes of that Sunday’s worship. It is inspiring, beautiful, and emotionally rich;

     3. Makes a concerted effort to bring more two- and three-dimensional art into our worship space, for short rotating “shows” in the sanctuary. The art should engage culture and spirituality;

     5. Includes drama. A church troupe can act out parts of the morning’s themes on a monthly basis and provide a rich multi-generational activity opportunity;
includes a high-quality children and/or youth choir that is a destination for parents who want their kids to learn to sing under the direction of a pro.

Why might this work? Because in a city of 6 or 7 million, for example, a subgroup usually called “cultural creatives” probably represents about 10% of the population. At LPCC we’d like 1% of that ten percent, or perhaps 6,000 people, to at least consider visiting sometime to see whether our combination of various high arts and thoughtful reflection on meaning is for them. Note, by the way, that this model for church breaks out of the church-as-school mode. It doesn’t trade on the value of church as authority so much as the value of church as a window on mystery and meaning. 

But it is my second proposal that is most radical and most important if Lawrence Park Community Church is going to thrive in our new cultural context.

I propose that Lawrence Park Community Church start a second worshipping community within our congregation, one that offers a real choice to the broader community with respect to how they might worship. 

This second worshipping community is designed to engage a younger demographic: parents with small children, teens, and young adults. This community will meet in a service designed around socializing before and after supper. The evening might look like this: 

1. At six pm on Sunday night, people gather for coffee, healthy cold drinks, and snacks.

2. At six-thirty everyone sits down for a meal. A healthy, catered, buffet is on offer for all.

3. By seven pm, those who wish may move to the sanctuary for a half hour of worship. Music is contemporary and secular, with spiritual themes, professionally played. The pastor offers a brief seven-minute meditation; a prayer, and then it’s over. Meanwhile . . . 

4. At six pm, as people gather to socialize, babysitting is available for children aged 0 to 4. Babysitting remains available until everyone is gone, perhaps nine pm. This offers parents a break from family responsibilities to be with people their own age. If parents prefer, of course, they can take these tots to supper with them.

5. At six pm, structured play and sport activities are also available for older children and young teens. A coffee shop lounge is available for older teens. 

6. At seven, after supper, Sunday story time for kids through grade 5 goes for half an hour. There isn’t a youth program for older kids, as we would like them to attend the brief time of worship. It—the music and the message--relates to them.

7. After worship, Babysitting continues so adults can choose, if they like, to sit in on a movie discussion or a book club. Youth will meet for sports and socializing on a varied schedule—dodgeball, basketball, maybe drama or choir practice.

8. The structured activities end at 8:30, and people have another half hour to mingle, have refreshments, including a glass of wine if desired, and pick up their kids from nursery.

This sort of plan would allow those returning from skiing or the cottage to get a meal, worship, and bring the family home well fed and ready for bed without further cooking or chaos at home. It would provide young parents with three hours of not having to worry about their youngest children if they so choose. It’s a free meal and socializing for young professionals. And it would build meaningful spiritual community in a lonely city, at the one time in the week when more people have little to do compared to any other time—all without having to fight traffic. 

     One more thing needs to be said. These proposals also reflect the fact that LPCC is a liberal church. It sometimes seems like nativist, reactionary, simplistic, fear-based, moralistic attitudes to all that is going on in the world are on the rise. We refuse to follow that route. We embrace a liberal theology that emphasizes following Jesus over trying to explain what really happened during Holy Week. We wonder about God instead of trying to put him (or her!) in a box where we can command God to do what we want. We shy away from letting yesteryear's moral benchmarks define what we must be today. Following Jesus also requires more than personal morality; it requires pursuit of social justice, inclusivity based on neighbourliness, and having a heart for the least and the last.

At least, that’s what I’m thinking, right now. It will be different and a great risk, for sure. But doing the same thing over and over has already proven to be a great and unwise risk, anyway. And that is how I hope LPCC will face up to the modern crisis in religion.