There is a crisis occurring in the Church, at least as far as I have seen during my lifetime; a crisis that the so-called Church leaders have unsuccessfully addressed. In my estimation, they have had no vision. Harsh words, I know, but please read on.
In 2014 Pew Research, a leading network of academics who study the phenomena of religious practice, found the following: In the United States, the median age of Christians is 49 years old, compared to 46 years old for the general population. In Europe, the median age of Christians is 42 years old, compared to 40 years old for the general population. Similarly, in Australia and New Zealand, the median age of Christians is 49 years old, compared to 38 years old for the general population. This leads to an obvious question: where are all the youth and children? The same study found the following: Christians have an average of 2.2 children, compared to 2.6 for the general population and 2.9 for Muslims. In Europe, Christians have an average of 1.6 children, compared to 1.7 for the general population and 2.6 for Muslims. Christians are simply not having enough children! What will this mean for the lifespan of the Church?
The Church is facing a demographic time bomb. To further make my point, answer the following questions: How old are you and how old are the adults in your church? Now, answer the same for all the fellowships to which you have belonged. Most of you know exactly what I am getting at. If you are fortunate enough to belong to a trend-bucking church, then kudos to you; that is not the picture for most Christian fellowships in the West. Christians in the West average a birth rate of 1.6, which is lower than those of no religion at 1.7, and significantly lower than those of the average Muslim family at 2.1, as found by the European Social Survey. This picture changes dramatically once we move outside of Europe where the figures are far healthier. However, that does nothing to help Christians in Europe. As aforementioned, we are in a crisis because our Church leaders have been weak, selfish, and absorbed in everything other than the survival of the Church.
A significant part of the problem is the Church’s inability to hold on to the youth (a topic I have touched on in my previous blogs) and the massive imbalance between men and women (something that “Muscular Christianity” addresses in previous blogs). However, there are two other parts to this picture; the first is how thinly spread Christians are in the West, making it hard for us to find one another, and the second is how our Christian communities could not carve out a distinct identity of our own – so that we could spot one another in a crowd. I mean, could you?
Another major problem is that we have bought into the same failed model as the rest of the Western world regarding how we ‘couple up.’ The ‘romance model’ was popularised in literature from the 1700s and movies since the time people first filmed a train. The idea is that in some fatalistic way, you will happen chance upon the love of your life and eventually marry and live happily ever after. Considering the decreasing number of people getting married in the first place, the increasing number of marriages that fail in divorce, and the rising endemic of single people in all age groups (fact check me if you think I am making it up), it is fair to say that, for too many people, the romance model is failing. Never did this model warrant our going along with, yet going along with it we did! I want to repeat, yet again, that we have inherited this crisis from visionless ‘leaders’ who were too weak-willed to help the Church cut a different path, contrary to the wider trends of society. They accepted the changes in society without question or critique. Of course, they tried to sprinkle some Christianity over the top – and failed – but that was about it!
To make things worse, Christian pastors and leaders have created a Church environment that turns relationships and sexual urges into a fetish, only to be discussed in dark corners of the Church with blushed faces. They have had no sense of how to create a culture in which people can couple up appropriately and acceptably. Consequently, the only model available has been that of the romance model, outside of the Church setting and Christian community, which has led to countless Christians falling into sin. This author included.
By far, the most successful pushback and drastic attempt at counterculture within these compromised visionless churches was that advocated by Joshua Harris, author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” (1997). Joshua encouraged unmarried Christian couples to discern, in a community setting, whether they were a good match, with a clear view of marriage. It correctly identified the shallowness of the romantic model and the pain that emerged from it. His thesis was to replace ‘dating’ with ‘courtship in community’ in which family and trusted adults both advise and chaperone the couple’s courting. Christian critics who have no concept of ‘church discipline’ criticised the book; one must question if these critics were happy with premarital sex as the alternative. However, problems can arise within Harris’s model when the couple’s community and culture which serve to support the couple are being driven by a different set of values and expectations on how to live out these values. This can be very damaging, to say the least. Another problem with the thesis of Harris’s book is that it can lean into the error of perfectionism, which has become the bane of the purity movement in the USA. It does not fully appreciate how important a wider community context is to make it work. The author himself has proceeded to repudiate his own work and his own life as a Christian.
While the Harris model may have had some challenges, I propose it was largely correct, albeit with some proper adjustments. We have modern examples of communities that have successfully lived countercultural for centuries. For example, there is a community of Christians better known as the Amish who are of the Old Order Amish Mennonite Church. This community has a birth rate of 5.2 compared to the national average of the USA of 1.8. Perhaps that one stat was not enough. How about this – over 90% of all Amish adults are married and boast over a 90% retention rate of their youth. If wisdom is known by her children – then the Amish are wise!
Let us consider how the Amish model works and see if it can be adapted for our time, without having to re-write ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye.’ The Amish have a structured understanding of what happens and everyone in their communities understands it and is committed to the following stages:
- Socializing: Young Amish people are encouraged to socialize with one another in a variety of settings, including church services, but especially youth group events and communal activities. However, these interactions are generally supervised and limited, with the goal of maintaining emotional and physical purity. The point is, that they are being encouraged to socialise within the community!
- Courtship: If a young man and woman are interested in each other, they may enter into a period of courtship, in which they spend time getting to know each other under the watchful eye of their families and community. Courtship may involve going on group dates, attending church events together, or doing household chores or other tasks together. Please note, that they are not dating alone!
- Engagement: If the courtship goes well and the couple feels that they are meant to be together, they may become engaged. This is typically a private agreement between the couple and their families and may involve the exchange of gifts or other tokens of affection.
- Marriage: After a period of engagement, the couple will be married in a church ceremony.
Another current model for your consideration, to help make something like ‘courtship in community’ successful, is the Benedict Option model. This model is unpacked by author Rod Dreher in his book “The Benedict Option” (2017). Rod envisions how Christians should live in a culture that is no longer Christian. Without creating a genuine Benedict model of the Church, we should expect some couples to go too far. It should be understood in our circles that when two people are discerning whether they are meant to be together, more than ever, they need a mother or father of confession to relate closely with during this period. If they make a mistake and falter, which some will, a mechanism of reparation and restoration should be in place. I can hear your objection in that you are not in a Benedict option community. Well, the answer is simple – get into one or advocate the forming of them in your own area.
To reverse this demographic time bomb, Pastors need to be brave, prioritising the good of the whole body over their own bank balance. The Church should be a place where families, large and small, are highly valued. Christians should be known as people always trying to get their singles married. It should be normal that singles are deliberately seeking to get married, unless of course one is a committed celibate. Christian circles and church fellowships should be deliberately social, creating events where congregations can mix and mingle; and where singles and couples, whether they are engaged or married, can attend. Christian denominations should lower their walls to increase the success of creating couples, resulting in a more unified Church. So Christian, have at it! Try to cultivate a culture in which Christians have no need to go to bars, pubs, or clubs because they know that at every Christian gathering, everyone is trying to get them married anyway.
Add to the Amish and Benedict Option a robust ‘Muscular Christianity’ (a topic I talk and blog about ad nauseam – see my previous blogs) and we have something that could really shake it up for the Western Church.
In conclusion, the demographic time bomb is about to go off in the Church as you read this article, but there is a way of turning things around – and that is by being even more committed to everything our faith teaches, not being less so! As you consider my argument, I will leave you with the story of the life of Saint Valentine to ring in your ears. If I have won you to my position, please subscribe, comment, and share this article with others.
St. Valentine was a priest in Rome who dedicated much of his time to supporting persecuted Christians in the city who were suffering at the hands of the savage hater of the Church, Claudius the Goth II. The saint had grabbed the attention of the Roman authorities because of his great activism in the cause of the Church. He was especially noted for defying the ban placed by the emperor upon those men who had not yet finished their term in the army to marry. Due to it being a Christian imperative, the saint, in opposition to the law, blessed several couples, including a number of Christian soldiers and their wives. He was arrested and at his trial, the emperor asked, “Why, Valentine, do you want to be a friend of our enemies and reject our friendship?”
The saint replied, “My lord if you knew the gift of God, you would be happy together with your empire and would reject the worship of idols and worship the true God and His Son Jesus Christ.”
He was asked what he thought about Jupiter and Mercury, to which he replied, “They are miserable, and spent their lives through corruption and crime!”
He was decried in the court with the words, “He blasphemes against the gods and against the empire!”
A back-and-forth ensued between the emperor and saint, as the saint valiantly defended the faith and advertised its many benefits. He finally made an appeal to the emperor and the court, in the likeness of the Apostles who had gone before him, saying, “Believe in Jesus Christ, be baptized and you will be saved, and from this time forward the glory of your empire will be ensured as well as the triumph of your armies.”
Emperor Claudius became sympathetic and intrigued saying, “What a beautiful teaching this man preaches.” to which the court replied, “See how this Christian misleads even the emperor.”
Whilst in prison, St. Valentine continued to bless the marriages and facilitate the couplings of Christians he knew to be single and in need of a spouse. He even healed one of the daughters of the court of blindness, leading the father to convert to Christianity and destroy his idols. St. Valentine continued to encourage other Christians to end. Eventually, for his crimes against the law of the emperor and the gods of Rome, he was martyred by torture and beheading on 14 February in the year 268 AD.