Keep believing, keep praying, keep serving!
A new study investigating why people stop attending church has discovered that two thirds of church-leavers maintain a strong personal faith. This research is the first to make a thorough exploration of the world behind the statistics. Its findings challenge assumptions that declining numbers of people sitting in pews on Sunday mornings are synonymous with a decline in Christian faith and the Christian community. 'I discovered the number of people who attend church services are the tip of the iceberg of the total Christian community' says researcher Dr Steve Aisthorpe, whose findings are presented in a new book, 'The Invisible Church'. 'I conducted extensive and rigorous research in Scotland and made a careful study of related research from other parts of the UK and across the Western world. I found that changes in wider society and in the practices of Christian people mean attendance at Sunday morning worship can no longer be seen as a reliable indicator of the health and scale of Christian faith. There is decline in Christian faith in Britain, but it is considerably smaller than previously assumed'.
The research commissioned by the Church of Scotland suggests that Christianity in Great Britain is in transition, rather than decline. Steve's findings challenge assumptions about the inevitable secularisation of British society. 'There has been a well-publicised view within the Christian community that those who discontinue church attendance usually do so over trivial issues and it is now clear that this is not true. The evidence also shows that churches which are resistant to change and those which are dominated by a single group are more likely to decline. There is evidence of small informal gatherings of people coming together to explore their faith in what have been termed 'Fresh Expressions' of church are experiencing dynamic growth'.
Rt Rev Dr Angus Morrison, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland says The Invisible Church is both hopeful and challenging. 'This is a major contribution to establishing the place of the church in contemporary society. As a Church we have to take heed of these findings, something we are already doing by investing money and resources in our pioneer ministry programme, which is bringing our Church into the wider community'. Professor Leslie Francis of the University of Warwick, who carried out the most extensive research into church-leaving in England and Wales has commented: 'Dr Steve Aisthorpe offers an original, insightful and authoritative voice on making visible and audible the invisible church of churchless Christians. His insights need to be taken seriously to understand God's presence and activity in today's world'.
But the Moderator of the Free Church in Scotland disagreed. Rev David Robertson, the Free Kirk Moderator, challenged research commissioned by the Church of Scotland which claimed attendance of Sunday services is not an accurate indicator of Christian belief. Mr Robertson said: 'On the one hand there is the trivialisation and the dumbing down of Christianity, on the other, church leaders in denial about the real state of the churches. On a recent radio programme I heard church leaders speaking about the 'fact' that ten per cent of the population go to church, and 20 per cent who are committed Christians but who do not go'. David Robertson continued: 'The ten per cent figure is greatly exaggerated in most areas of Scotland. And the 20 per cent figure is the kind of myth that professional clergy tell themselves in order to make their jobs more palatable. The trouble is that we have failed to come to terms with the fact that Christendom has gone, and that Scotland is now one of the most secularised post-Christian nations in the world. The good news is that this means that we have a tremendous mission field. The bad news is that far too much of the church cannot seem to agree on what the mission is. When the church cannot even agree on its own core message, never mind the moral and social positions it should take, it is little wonder that the world does not listen. Easter is about renewal, resurrection and new life. The Church in Scotland is in desperate need of all of these. May the Lord grant mercy and an outpouring of his Holy Spirit upon his church and this nation'.
It seems to me that some people who fall out with their congregation or minister and stop attending have not stopped being Christians. There are others who have actually just given up on God. This may be caused by bitterness following bereavement. It may be because they have always had doubts about the existence of God and at a certain point in their lives they just clarify these doubts into a defined loss of faith. People leave churches because they don't like the minister and because they have fallen out with another member or members. Some continue to worship elsewhere but many don't ever go back to church except for family occasions.
What are we actually saying here? Are we not just talking about nominal Christians, who never were all that committed to Jesus Christ and for whom God is not a living presence in their lives? The Church of Scotland does nominal Christianity. The nominal Christianity of the Church of Scotland is much more nominal today than it was years ago. The application form for the ministry asks all sorts of personal questions. It does not however ask 'Do you believe in God?' The centuries old model of ministry based on prayer, preaching and pastoral care which is the one I follow, has been replaced with an 'events manager' model of ministry. So what may be being acknowledged is that there is not a lot of difference between nominal Christians who go to church and nominal Christians who have stopped going to Church. And what David Robertson of the Free Church is saying is that neither form of nominal Christian is the real thing and that to think that Scotland is still a Christian country is wrong because there are not very many true committed confessing practising Christians in Scotland any more.
Keep believing, keep praying, keep serving!
Keep believing. What is believing? It is defined as an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof. But that is not Christian believing. People believe in all sorts of things such as ghosts and fairies and unidentified flying objects and extra terrestrial beings. Atheists place Christian belief on the same level. It is not. Christian belief has evidence to support it. First there is the testimonies of the disciples turned apostles. Then there is the witness of nearly 2000 years of Christian testimony. Then there is the changed lives given over to Jesus Christ showing the fruits of the Spirit as described in Galatians chapter 5, love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Then there are all the good works done in the Name of Jesus and for His sake. How many schools have been built? Too many to count. How many hospitals have been built? Too many to count. How many charities have been set up? Innumerable. How many gifts and donations have been made? Billions. How many neighbourly good deeds and kindnesses? Billions and billions. Christian belief has a solid foundation in Jesus Christ's living presence within the believer. And there is something much more. Christian belief is not forcing on the mind against the realities of life. It is not just agreeing. It is the working out of a life commitment.
And it is still more. For Christian belief is trust, faith, and confidence in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. It is in Someone who Has accomplished something. It is not pie in the sky when you die. Sports people are always talking about the importance of belief in players and teams. You hear comments such as 'one team believed and the other did not'. That kind of belief is actually just hope. It is stronger than hope but it is about something about to happen. Christian belief is trust and faith and confidence in what has already been done for us in Jesus Christ. On Calvary. In Resurrection. In the Church. In the Word preached. In the Sacraments shared. Christian belief is well founded like granite blocks supporting a building. Christian belief is not a house of sand. Keep believing.
Keep praying. I have often said that we here are not a praying Church. By that I mean that as a congregation we do not meet regularly specifically to pray. I know there are praying people in this congregation, praying people here today. But collective prayer is the powerhouse of any congregation. Prayer is what makes the difference between being a nominal Christian and being a committed Christian. As Paul teaches in Thessalonians chapter 5 'Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you'. We learned some weeks ago that Jesus told parables to his disciples to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He understood that we can be discouraged when it seems that our prayers are not being heard or answered. Even good Christians have spiritual seasons when they do not pray as much as they used to do. The saints of the Church describe barren spells of prayer from time to time. I like the analogy of St Francis de Sales. He lived from 1567 to 1622. He became Roman Catholic Bishop of Geneva at the time of the Reformation. He urged Christ like gentleness in response to the Reformation and that distinguished him from the violent official Counter-Reformation policy that saw Protestant heretics burned for their faith, especially in England. St Francis de Sales said 'Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections. Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset. Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength'. He wrote a spiritual manual and called it 'The Garden of the Soul'. He likened cultivating a spiritual Christianity to looking after a garden of flowers and plants. It is often said that you can feel close to God in a garden. And the opposite is true. Tend your inner being as you might your garden. Keep praying.
Keep serving. You have to be doing something for Jesus Christ for your faith to work. A car can sit in a garage but is not of any great use if it is never started and driven. A person may be a gifted pianist but if he or she never actually plays, what good is that talent to anyone? You cannot be Christian and sit in your house doing nothing about it. The energy of Christian activity is important to the survival of congregations throughout the land. Christians have always been able to point to caring works to offset criticisms and opposition in society. This is especially needed today when the core purpose of the Church is challenged like never before in this land. God, Jesus, the Gospel, sin, forgiveness, salvation, eternal life. The unbelieving have no time for such categories strange to them. But they do understand a Food Bank, a Soup Kitchen, Homeless Shelter, Charity Shops, space for meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous. Christianity has always sought to care for the human body and well as the soul. Keep serving. Keep believing, keep praying, keep serving! Don't give up. Give the Lord a chance to save, maintain and grow his Church in future. He lives. He will live. He is eternal.