It is doubtful that any Western/Latin Christian is going to deny that our little part of the world is seeing the Church slowly erode. Much clamour is made about the bad, or at least the lack of good, teaching in the Church as the cause of the problem. Certainly, this is part of the problem. However, allow me to make the case that our problems are more of a structural nature in that they are sociological, and that there is a structure that would give us the time, resources, space, and power to regain the Church’s initiative in the west.
So, what do I mean by structural problems? I mean the way we organise as a community. The vast majority of the Church organises itself upon a local ‘parish’ with a denominational overlay. These parishes may be only a few hundred yards away from another parish of another denomination but rarely, if ever, do they work together. Surprisingly, that s not the point of this article. In fact, let us assume, for the sake of the argument, that sectarianism is necessary and good (puke*). So, for the remainder of this article, whatever your denomination, you can measure what I am saying and apply it just to your denomination.
Upfront, let’s agree that each church can point to exceptions that could disprove my rule as true and sadly use such exceptions to fool many into thinking nothing needs to be changed. For instance, we could point to the Orthodox churches which are undergoing a growth spurt right now from a low base. This is largely due to the avid work of social media influencers, a few highly committed parishioners, and the huge disaffection of Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism and other Christians who are understandably looking for the steadfast faith and historical continuity that all churches should give – but increasingly do not as they liberalised. I am happy for them but it is not a given that this growth spurt will continue. Only a percentage will move over and only a few will be reached by that tiny minority within orthodoxy who bother to do any meaningful evangelism. Most Orthodox leaders have a ‘We are here, come and see!’ attitude to evangelism which, once the stream of disaffected Christians dries up, will return to the general thesis of this article, sociological decline.
The Anglicans could point to churches like St. Helen’s Bishop Gate as an example of an Anglican super-church with thousands of committed members and thriving church life (so at this point you can think of any mega-church). However, these churches tend to have massive turnover; people coming in and people leaving, and I might add not all for bad reasons either. People move on in life – it’s a thing, not a criticism. However, at some point, the outflow will outstrip the inflow and that church will also begin to decline as has happened to countless other examples in modern Church history. Many churches experience decline because of scandal, but often because the dynamics that hold these places usually come from the inspirational leader who establishes them, they most inevitably fail (as he is human-I am always perplexed why this surprises people). Or, at some point, he must throw off this mortal coil and meet his Maker and sadly once this leader leaves, in most cases, the congregation begins to falter thereafter. There are countless examples and you can probably think of some off the top of your hat. If you do not believe me, go away and do all of 10 minutes to research this.
People will often say something like, “We need to do more evangelism!” As an evangelist, you will hear no arguments from me – I totally agree! However, and I say this as one committed completely to evangelism, you will reach effectively less than 3% of the population this way (that is not a real figure, by the way; it’s an illustration). The number of those committed to evangelism in the churches is few, and those that can do effective evangelism are even fewer. Therefore, the number they can reach is tiny. Since we are talking about a minority within a minority already, I dare bet that my 3% is being generous. So, whilst more and better evangelism is absolutely great – it’s only part of a solution.
So, let us start here to make my case. Our problems are our structures and ignorance of sociological laws which apply as much to the Church as they do any other group. I am sure every church gives lip service to evangelism. Even if they do very little of it, or view it as ‘Well, we are here; come and see!’, the reality of winning souls to Christ is largely out of fashion. Considering how badly lots of evangelists do it, I can see why. Who wants to associate with the guy shouting into a megaphone when clearly no one is listening? However, let’s imagine a church where there is someone who is committed to evangelism and they are doing it every spare hour they can. Between work, family, friends, and other church activities – that is only going to amount to a few hours a week. They will probably be working alone, or if they are lucky, linked up to a handful of other evangelists with a mixed bag of abilities. Therefore, collectively, they have a little more time and a little more resources depending on (and here is the key bit) – how they organise! Remember, we are assuming just one denomination here, but this group is not likely to be supported much in terms of finances or logistics by their wider congregations, some of whom may frown upon their bold-as-brass attempts to win over souls. So, their efforts bring converts, yes, but only drip by drip.
Meanwhile, the parish church meets on a Sunday, once a week, and has one mid-week activity in a small group, or as a congregation. For many within the Church, this is their TOTAL Christian input! This means the congregation is going to be dividing (let’s be generous) six hours of contact time a week. Let us imagine this church loves GOD a lot, and so they give two of those hours over to Sunday worship and spend one hour, sometimes two, in the week studying Scripture. Naturally, their remaining time, two to three hours, is spent trying to socialise and connect with one another (Remember, I was being generous. We all know it’s usually a lot less) and that is it – done. The formal Church stuff is over until the same thing next week! This is often supplemented by some meaningful Christian fellowship which may be another two hours a week. These Christians, in their contact time, naturally want to spend time with their friends, and so the newcomer is ignored; creating cold uninviting churches. Seriously, what can be built in such a short amount of time, both internally and externally? Now, I have used here the example of time, but the reality is that Christian parishes are caught in a deficit of time, resources, and human activity! This inevitably, along with the supermarket of Christian churches now on offer, encourages a consumer approach to Church. This leads people to bounce from church to church when they are not fed properly spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually – by their fellowship. Its structures can only cater to so many, and even then to certain kinds of people, after which the rotating door effect comes into play. People get lost in the masses and end up leaving in search of something smaller.
Small parishes become consumed by the cost of the upkeep of a building which is built on the assumption of a much larger community absorbing all their time and attention. The help that one parish can give to another is often limited because each one is trying to work as its own cell. Take, for example, the youth work of a church; often a small number of awkward teens packed into a room with an adult talking about stuff in an age-inappropriate way, both in terms of the topics and the delivery. Churches, even within a denomination, will not pool their resources and energies to look after their own youth for fear of ‘losing them.’ There are times when churches need to work together on a larger picture. Sharing experiences, resources, and knowledge in the care, protection, and discipleship of our youth is beyond the pale. Naturally, as these youth want friends, they find themselves outside of the three to eight other youth in the parish and drift away from the faith because they do not feel like they belong. Despite many churches, even of the same denomination, being within walking distance or a short ride away from one another with the opportunity to create a larger youth group and cultivate a larger Christian youth culture, we seem content to lose upwards of 90% of our youth who walk away from the faith because no one will try anything different. The alternative is, that we just double down on the fun and abandon any attempt to cultivate a body of people in an identity. The truth is, you need a critical mass of people in order to share and re-enforce your identity; closer to 50 rather than 10. After all, the Church was born with a few hundred people, not twelve!
The same principle applies when resisting liberalism. If your contact time is just a few hours, and your numbers are tiny, inevitably more of your thinking (except for the living ‘saints’ amongst us) will be more influenced by the non-Christian world than by a Christian society (which church is). They already control nearly all you see, read, and hear; the economic, political, legal, (and increasingly) religious institutions you pass through and are forced to interact with, including your employer. We all know how we have either had to bite our lip, acquiesce, or have suffered for not doing so; and slowly we conform, we rationalise, and we compromise little by little. Due to these liberals controlling education, most of us have many assumptions which are not rooted in Christianity, as follows: democracy, individualism, capitalism, multiculturalism, and civic nationalism. None of these is sacred from a Christian perspective, though some of them are ‘wise’ from the perspective of their utility. However, we have been taught that these ideas are sacrosanct. Many churches continuously choose to keep their attendance large by diluting their identity as an institution, becoming a self-sustaining apparatus. It fights for its existence, and if a Christian institution can not find Christians to work for it, it chooses non-Christians to do the jobs that need to be done. And so the rot sets in! Think of Catholic educational institutions, the Church of England, or the Methodist Church; once a few militant liberals get in, they often push for transformation and work for it like a committed Christian who has found their vocation does!
Then, there is the family crisis. By that – I mean we Christians have stopped building and creating families. It’s not because we planned to or wanted to, but rather, because our structures do not support them. Men have mostly abandoned the church because of its gooey, wishy-washy spirituality, woollen thinking, and absence of masculine spirituality. We have virtually no means to channel or direct masculine energy even if a group of men did come to church (prayer breakfasts can only get you so far – and it isn’t very). There are no societies, fraternities, or orders that seek to cultivate the Christian knight anymore in the Church. This absence of men leaves the Christian sister with a deplorable choice; they either fight fiercely for the few good men, accept a subpar man, look for a man outside of the church, or commit to a faithful celibate life. I can not shout loud enough… this is not how it was meant to be!! This issue is contributing to the pressures that lead people into sin or to leave the Church completely. However, division along sectarian lines, an ageing population, and a lack of wider connectivity between churches mean even eligible folks are not meeting. We have simply adopted the sickly ‘Hollywood romance model’ which is failing generally and added a few Christian caveats.
In addition, there is the plight of the martyrs. The cause of our brethren who, due to a time, energy, and resource deficit created by the current parish modal, do not get a look in or a mention at all. If anything, they are mentioned in a teaching once a year. Yes, they may get a mention in prayers and sermons, possibly even weekly, but no great agitation is called for on behalf of the body of Christ. Such a movement could not be sustained with the parish programme which invariably is directed to some NGO purpose, a club-like rhythm, or (most sickly of all) a mere place for re-enation of venerable rituals. There are, of course, those few stalwarts who make this the bread and butter of their Christianity (as we all should) but they, like our evangelists, singles, and youth, are simply too spread out to find one another and organise on any great level or have a sustained impact on the body of Christ or the society around them. Try as they might, they are reduced essentially to the individual efforts they can sustain.
I hope to have painted the picture of our structural problems in such a way as you can see it in your own fellowships and experience in Church. Does what I am saying ring true? If it does, then I have a word of hope for you. As despairing as this picture is, all is not lost!
These problems are all sociological. It is our ignorance of the fact that the Church operates like a sociological body that is adding to the problem, and slowing down the solution. Though begrudgingly, the tide of history is pulling the sensitive to a solution. This is all compounded by the fact that there is a general unwillingness amongst church leaders who are steeped in sectarianism and have a tendency to isolate their congregations from other fellowships. This is a contributing factor to the evaporation of the church in the west. I want to stress – this is a very reversible decline. If my thesis is right, then changing and refashioning our structures with some attitude adjustment, as well, could very well change the Church’s decline into growth. The beauty of this argument is that even if you can not bring yourself to be in bed with (join together with) other brothers and sisters in Christ because your denomination is the perfect one, you can still apply this to your denomination alone.
Now, what then is the best sociological structure that can address, in one move, as many of the issues that the Church faces as possible? I want to tell you in three words: the Benedict Option. This is an idea that has come of age and is needed urgently. The idea can be summarised very briefly as the willingness of Christians to live together in consolidated geographical spaces; for instance, in the same streets, neighbourhoods, towns, cities, and regions. The evidence is overwhelming to show that this works. Muslims who do it in the UK, despite being around 4% of the population, have a disproportionate influence on society. It works for the Amish who are growing at a higher rate than any section of American society; it works for the Unionist cause in Northern Ireland which has huge control over what happens in that part of the world. It works for Orthodox Jews, who are outstripping all other forms of Judaism. Let me run through the examples above whilst looking at the Amish. It just works – and obviously the bigger the base you start from, the more chance it has of succeeding.
The Amish are notoriously bad at evangelism, but their Church is growing because of how their close-knit community manages to create families. They retain upwards of 95% of their youth as the gulf between their way of life, and that of the world around them is so big. It leads to culture shock and a desire for the familiar. Their youth groups regularly lead to marriages and because the Amish live nearly all their lives amongst other Amish they have preserved both their own language and a lifestyle closer to the late 1700s despite the full ravages of Liberalism storming around them. They can and do very easily pull together to help one another though, because of their lifestyles, they seem to run into fewer social problems than the surrounding cultures. Should you be convinced of my thesis, one lesson I think is important to learn from the outset about a healthy Benedict Option is to keep the power structures as low and as flat to the ground as possible and spread out power into smaller units. The Amish number in the 100s of thousands – and growing – but each of their congregations probably has about 30 – 50 families. The leaders’ lives should look and sound a lot like the people they are leading.
My point is – brothers and sisters…that in one move we could reduce the deficit we all have in time, resources, energy, and manpower by simply living closer together, doing all that we do now, but next to one another. The impact of all our activism would be multiplied and, most importantly, families would be created and our neighbours converted because we would be setting the paradigm in which our neighbours would be living.
There are two criticisms I would make of the Amish; 1) Their unbiblical commitment to pacifism as a moral obligation (when it is only a moral option), and 2) Their unwillingness to evangelise is also a hugely unbiblical attitude. While I think this is rooted in the fact that integration into such a radical lifestyle takes time, a flood of new converts introduces people who have not had the decade plus’s worth of absorption into their way of life, like their own children, and thus can be a source of disharmony, which due to their commitment to pacifism is prized highly. However, all that blights the western Church is being resisted by the Amish, and with a high degree of success.
So, how can denominations adopt something like this when if they attempted to establish a Benedict option across the board, a lot of them would just become pensioners colonies? Well, it would have to involve some liquidation of assets to fund it, to begin with. Properly funded – youth and young adults from 18 – 35 could be invited to live in a ‘Christian social community’ of land or houses bought for that purpose with the expressed aim of, in time, controlling all forms of local economics, policing, education, and politics. Through the sheer force of numbers and with the right teaching, this really could be achieved as we have seen other groups do it!
Church! Don’t you see? With enough numbers, you end up electing people who you want to see govern you. You end up being recruited to the local police force, you end up sitting on the school governing boards, deciding what gets taught to kids. You end up sitting on the church PCC or deciding which pro-family café gets customers, and which rainbow flag flying café receives a boycott. Eventually, through collectivisation, you pool together and buy the land under that café and replace it with a Christian business. Your neighbours see you celebrating your festivals in the street and either join in the biggest show in town and convert or move out because they find that everyone around them is Christian. This, then, can become an ever-expanding island through conversion – and more ‘immigrants’ who join it from across the country and within the denomination, which may also still be operating the old parish system at the same time.
Being the one Christian amongst ten non-Christians reduces Christians to being an increasingly irrelevant ‘prophetic’ voice, simply seen as odd, eccentric, or grumbling. However, when everyone in the pub is pro-life, suddenly being pro-life looks normal to the few who are on the fence. We, therefore, can organise to do bigger evangelism in our nearby city or town. We can then organise bigger efforts to support the persecuted Church because now we can. Rather than travelling across the country to pool together a few hundred people for a day of protest, the whole largely Christian town could be motivated by the buzz created by that 150 people who are active amongst them year-round; and maybe a thousand people come out to the next protest!
Now of course; this is not the only problem that is affecting the Church in the west. I have not spoken of the need for good teachers who communicate an ambitious vision for the people of GOD (rather than just their fellowship). Nor have I mentioned the need for training, or a myriad of other things; but what I have outlined are a series of problems – which with one move – we can make a positive step towards addressing if we recognise what the actual problem is.
So, how could you put this into effect? In summary, move closer to one another, deliberately as a fellowship, and then invite anyone from within your denomination across the world to come and join your new project. You could then build relationships with other Christians in your new town project in which, whilst they remain faithful to their church activities and you to yours, you are building a living society, breaking bread together, working together, supporting one another, building and toiling together, and mourning and celebrating together. Once you start that… the rest will begin to write itself.