Last year, as COVID-19 began to bite in the United States and it looked like churches would remain closed for Easter, Tomáš Halik, Jesuit professor of sociology at Charles University in Prague, wrote in America magazine:
“…I cannot help but wonder whether the time of empty and closed churches is not some kind of cautionary vision of what might happen in the fairly near future. This is what it could look like in a few years in a large part of our world. We have had plenty of warning from developments in many countries, where more and more churches, monasteries and priestly seminaries have been emptying and closing. Why have we been ascribing this development for so long to outside influences (the “secularist tsunami”), instead of realizing that another chapter in the history of Christianity is coming to a close, and it is time to prepare for a new one?
Maybe this time of empty church buildings symbolically exposes the churches’ hidden emptiness and their possible future unless they make a serious attempt to show the world a completely different face of Christianity. We have thought too much about converting the world and less about converting ourselves: not simply improvement but a radical change from a static “being Christians” to a dynamic “becoming Christians”.”
I was reminded of a recent study amongst adolescents in the United states, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
The study found that American teenagers are incredibly inarticulate about their religious beliefs and to the extent that the teens did manage to articulate what they understood and believed religiously, it became clear that most religious teenagers either do not really comprehend what their own religious traditions say they are supposed to believe, or they do understand it and simply do not care to believe it.
For most American adolescents who had some sort of faith it could be condensed down to something like this:
- “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”
- “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”
- “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”
- “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”
- “Good people go to heaven when they die.”
The scholars call this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and the writers of the Soul Searching report conclude: “That, in sum, is the creed to which much adolescent faith can be reduced. After conducting more than 3,000 interviews with American adolescents, when it came to the most crucial questions of faith and beliefs, many adolescents responded with a shrug and “whatever”.”
My hunch is that this is not something limited to young people and that this sort of benign, undemanding “be nice to each other” religion dominates much of the Church in comfortable middle-class suburbia in our own country. It is a safe and comfortable religion that requires little other than “be nice to one another” so you’ll go to heaven when you die.
Bishop George Browning’s new book, Not Helpful: Tales from a Truth Teller uses Browning’s own story of growing up and growing into his faith to put words around a faith that is about much more than this. It speaks of a faith that is involved and engaged and is active…that comes with a cost, that is not confined to Sunday liturgies or church buildings. It challenges us to broaden the boundaries of our understanding of the Church and the place of faith in the world.
A faith that is going to capture the hearts of a new generation of believers must be engaged with the issues that matter – while adults often seem intent on tearing ourselves apart over issues to do with gender and sexuality, young people have moved on. The issues that matter are issues of justice – environmental justice, justice for First Nations peoples, for those denied housing or healthcare or education. My teenage children are simply bewildered by a Church that preaches love on Sunday morning but excludes LGBTIQ+ people from full participation, a Church that follows a messiah who may have taught for just three years and yet is shackled to ways of thinking and doing some things that should have been let go centuries ago.
The young people in our schools can be passionate about so many things and will roll up their sleeves and get involved in fighting for change, but they are quick to spot what is not authentic.
Some years ago Anglican theologian Martyn Percy bewailed the fact that we have spent so much time and energy getting bums on seats when our real work is about getting bums off seats…to discover what God is already doing and to join in.
“We know where the Church is, but we don’t know where she isn’t,” the Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov taught. Maybe it is time for a broader and deeper and bolder search for God outside of the walls of our buildings.
Towards the end of his book, Bishop George reminds us that, “in the Gospels Jesus challenges his followers to be salt and leaven. In other words, followers are called out of the safety and security of group identity (religious, cultural or ethnic) to be a source of blessing in the wider ocean of humanity and the extended order of creation” (pp.193-4).
That is, to have an engaged, involved and active faith.
And, in his closing paragraphs we are left with the challenge that as “followers of Jesus in the 21st century [we] are not called to acts of piety that flow from belief that holiness is separation. We are called, as we always have been, to engage deeply with the world for its transformation” (p.254).
Perhaps Bishop George’s book, as much as anything, invites us to imagine that church is not the point of church…but is about joining [Jesus], as he joins the Father, in the unfinished task of creation, redemption and healing of the whole world.
In a world where damage to the climate, over-population, pandemics, economic inequity, surging nationalism, squandered and reduced resources all contribute to an environment in which many people, especially those already vulnerable and on the margins, now simply struggle to survive, this task is more urgent than ever. A faith that is about more than just being nice to each other so we can go to heaven, has a vital part to play.
Tomáš Halik wrote of the COVID-19 lockdown:
“We can, of course, accept this Lent of empty and silent churches as little more than a brief, temporary measure soon to be forgotten. But we can also embrace it as an opportune moment to reimagine an identity for Christianity in a world that is being radically transformed before our eyes. The current pandemic is certainly not the only global threat facing our world now and in the future.”
Not Helpful: Tales from a Truth Teller makes a thoughtful contribution to this re-imagination.
Bishop George Browning’s new book Not Helpful: Tales from a Truth Teller will be launched at St Francis College this Thursday 15 April at 6-7pm. Bishop George is a former principal of the College. The book reflects on his life in the Church and its intersection with politics and social justice, containing many a tale. If you are interested in attending, please RSVP by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org (and the library will pass on your RSVP).Jump to next article