this article first appeared in Reality Magazine, February/March 2001. Mark Pierson.>>>
How was Christmas for you? More specifically how was church for you this Christmas? What did you think of the services you attended? Would you have been happy taking friends who weren’t part of church culture? What did the experience of Advent and Christmas services say to you about the Christmas story? Not just the content but the feeling too? Did you come away feeling that your church had helped you celebrate, and helped you cope, and enabled you to feel confident about taking friends to experience something of the ‘greatest story ever told’? Or was the opposite true? Church added to the stress of an already stressful time of the year. It’s easy for church leaders to not stop and think seriously about what needs to be done at Christmas and what is just habit and unreasonable expectation. This is exactly the mindset that continues to draw the mainstream life of the Christian church further and further away from the orbit of Kiwi culture. We still expect people to come to us, on our terms. It’s a mindset that will ensure the continuing demise of the church. There’s another mindset that is contributing to this decline too. One I’m still grappling with.
"The Church has only 10 or 20 years left in the West." That statement from an American (now married to an Australian and living in Australia), Episcopalian become Bendictine, Professor of World Religions, recently really surprised me. It wasn’t the kind of prediction I’d expect from someone of his cultural and religious background. After all, the church is doing well in the USA isn’t it? (Actually it isn’t. Attendance’s are dropping dramatically, but with such huge numbers to start with it will be a while before the decline strikes the awareness of the average church goer.) But there it was. 10 or 20 years. He was quick to add that he was talking about church and not about Christianity; and in the West.
His thesis was that the Christian church in the West has traditionally exerted an extrinsic authority on the culture around it and called for a response of obedience from people within the culture. In other words the Church and it’s authority figures have said ‘this is the way, walk ye in it’. And when the hoi polloi ask ‘Why?’ They’re told, ‘Because this is the way, walk ye in it’. On the other hand, New Religious Movements, New Age Movements, call them what you like, appeal to intrinsic authorities. Lived experience and existential depth bring a ‘convincedness’. "I know this is right". It’s not hard to see what approach will be most successful in today’s culture.
The common response of the Church to this ‘attack’ on what it sees as it’s traditional values, is to try to assert more authority and demand greater obedience. In doing so it forgets that if Christian faith is to become mature and Christians become able to know what they believe and stand in the culture with and for those beliefs, extrinsic authorities must become internalised and gain intrinsic authority. How many ex-christians or ex-church goers do you know who have left the Faith or church because at some point in their life journey the Church or their church leaders or their understanding of the faith couldn’t cope with their life experience? Being told, ‘This is the way walk ye in it’, wasn’t enough on it’s own. No matter how loudly or forcefully or confidently it was said. It is the inability of the Church to help it’s communities to internalise faith in this way that leads to Christians deserting the faith. Faith that is accepted initially on extrinsic authority, perhaps in childhood, must be internalised if it is to last and mature.
In reality, being Christian involves maintaining a very important balance between both extrinsic and intrinsic authorities. There is an accountability to scripture and institutional tradition, and perhaps even to community, that is extrinsic. It’s outside of how you feel. But unless these also become internalised and transferred into something with intrinsic authority, something that you believe and know to be true from your experience, a living faith will not be maintained. Not a Christian one anyway. Western Buddhism, New Age Movements and the plethora of DIY religious alternatives available today offer an intrinsic authority (often through meditation) that either precedes any emphasis on extrinsic authorities (of perhaps food, diet, clothing, patterns of life) or ignores them entirely. You can access their spirituality directly and personally. Rules may or may not come later. Most often the opposite is true, or at least perceived to be true, of Christian faith.
It is the responsibility of the Christian Church, particularly of its ministers, Priests, preachers, teachers and leaders to understand what Christianity is competing with in the local and global market place of religions and to emphasise that perspective or aspect of Christian faith that best responds to that pressure. Right now we need to be letting people know – those already following Christ and those not doing so – that Christian Spiritually doesn’t involve only extrinsic authority. And we could start by looking no further than those already part of church communities. We could offer them some signs of hope that the Church understands what they are sensing – that there is more to faith than externals. As John Drane said at a recent Church of England conference to mark the end of their Decade of Evangelism,
"We often say that if we could only get people into the church they would realise that what it has to offer is good news. But it is the people who know us best, from the inside, who are rejecting us. If we could merely hold on to our own children, who desert the church in droves, the decline would be turned around".
It is part of the human journey toward maturity to seek to transform extrinsic authority into intrinsic authority. By failing to recognise, understand, encourage and support that process, the church pushes out the very people it is supposed to be drawing in and drawing on to maturity.
What does this mean in practical terms? I believe there are a few simple significant ways in which we can begin to bring change that will have a significant long term positive effect on the maturity of Christians and therefore on the future of the Church in the West. One of them is to provide opportunities for contemplation and meditation in our services of worship. I hope these ‘activities’ would also become part of every Christian’s non-church life too, but that’s unlikely unless they’re modeled in our gatherings for worship.
Contemplation has to be taught. Just providing ‘a time of silence’ isn’t enough (although I hear many people saying that it would be a wonderful interlude in their current noise-filled worship). People need to be trained in contemplation and using silence. We proclaim that in Jesus and through the work of the Holy Spirit every follower of Christ has direct access to God. Our practice says that only a few special followers can be trusted to have that access. The rest of us need to be told, ‘This is the way walk ye in it’. So contemplation and silence are considered dangerous. Too dangerous for the average believer. How can the church leaders be sure that Joe and Mary are hearing God speak to them in their contemplation and not ‘someone else’? Well, how can Joe and Mary be sure that it’s God speaking to the leaders? Because they’re paid to listen to God? Because they tell us, ‘This is the way walk ye in it’? Church leaders need to recognise the power games they often play and become willing to trust that God is just as likely to speak through Joe and Mary as through any other person in our community of faith. We need to train people in spiritual exercises and contemplation so they can hear from God for themselves and realise that following Jesus doesn’t depend only on extrinsic authorities but also on that inner strength and confidence that come from an experience of knowing; of being convinced because you’ve experienced.