The Future of Faith


           by Kenneth Bagnell


         An American churchman, now deceased, Robert Schuller, once said, “problems are not stop signs, they are guidelines.” I had to face the problems a few months ago, in order to do my pastoral visiting. Why?   Because a medical firm, which I visit several times a year, surprised me by assigning me to a test I never once expected: a driving exam with two examiners aboard. I must tell you that I was taught driving in 1958, by a fellow minister graduate in Nova Scotia, and never once have I had a driving incident. Not a single incident or ticket! Yes not once in sixty years!! So getting to the seniors residence where my elderly friends now reside, without my car, is complex, but I manage it. Barbara is at the wheel and when I am a visiting preacher at a congregation outside Toronto she is again at the wheel. I mention it all simply because I want you to know. So it’s said, nothing more.



   Now to the subject which I’ve been pondering in recent years – -the steady steep decline in the membership and influence of the Christian Church. To me, and many other Christians, the major reason is the ever widening and ever deepening secularism of society, which is to say, worldly.  Over the years I’ve had the obligation and opportunity to raise faith issues with the world’s leading theologians, among them Paul Tillich. In essence they have more perspective in common than in compromise. I remember, an insight that one of them – I believe Tillich — said something I often recall if I have a bout of doubt: “Life is a struggle between our faith and our reason…”

     We cannot and should not, hide or avoid, the fact that our Christian faith is on the decline and secularism is obviously on a surge that grows year by year. I had almost forgotten that I wrote a magazine essay, in 1961, on the emerging membership decline that has now increased almost incredibly. The United Church membership in 1961, was 1 million, 62 thousand. The last membership number I could acquire was in 2014, when the number had declined to 413,000. (It’s my impression that such figures are no longer available.) But the most critical fact is that the decline is virtually worldwide.

    For example, a week or so ago, I was giving a presentation in Toronto to a men’s Sunday morning gathering. It was on the famed British preacher, the late Leslie Weatherhead whom I’d interviewed long ago in 1962, in The City Temple in London. Thousands made up the congregation. Today? There’s not a church in the building. A few years ago, I purchased a book published in 2001; it was written by a respected British university historian, Callum G. Brown. Its title is not easily forgotten: “The Death of Christian Britain.” In his introduction he writes:  “By listening to people’s voices rather than purely counting heads, this book provides a fresh history of dechristianization, and predicts that the British experience since the 1960s, is emblematic of the destiny of the whole of Western Christianity.” Dechristianization?  

       I’m not ready to buy what he’s said in his wording, but nonetheless, the fact that Britain’s most renowned preacher and its largest congregation, have vanished is telling us what we must recognize, painful or not. Moreover, there are countless theological scholars who, mostly, do all they can to resist and renew the life of our faith and our churches. There must be hundreds who have written books, pamphlets, lectures, sermons, essays, in a sincere effort to see that Christian faith does not fail but endures.

       A man who is truly doing all he can for our faith’s future, is the American Thom Rainer, a minister, who in recent years has taken a new form of ministry: dealing with the survival and the insightful future of Christian and congregational life. I’ve received and read much of his insight and his now professional practice. Today, I’m taking the opportunity to pass on to those  who are serious about Christian faith and pastoral life. Recently Rainer listed five attributes which seriously minded men and women, lay people and clergy people, should seriously reflect upon as our congregations and parishes move to the future. “Cultural Christianity” as many call it, is declining rapidly. In the past, many people felt it was culturally, economically or politically advantageous to be part of a congregation even if they were not true Christian believers. Dr. Rainer has recently formed a few serious insights.  He suggests some very insightful Christian attitudes and practices. He reflects upon the generation of Christians born before 1946 and is loyal to ethical institutions, including Christians who have stayed with their congregations, in good and bad times. He is both an experienced minister and a very insightful man, who recognizes that we are in a new culture. For one thing, he sees migration from rural areas and small towns to the cities and brings his insight to that sociological change. He points out that in 1790, only 5 percent of Americans lived in the cities. By the 1960s, the percentage of Americans in cities skyrocketed to 65 percent. Today, over 80 percent of Americans are city dwellers. Rural and small town churches held on to members of that nature and age for over two centuries. But, now, the population base for these tenacious churches has dwindled dramatically.” He now sees the developments of our generation: Those who are transferring from one church to another are concentrating in fewer churches. Simply stated, a few churches are getting bigger at the expense of smaller churches. While that phenomenon has been in play for quite a while, it is now accelerating. The old barrier that held people in specific churches – family connections, denominational loyalty and devoted loyalty to a specific congregation, are no longer barriers today. “People move,” he says, “with great freedom from church to church.” There is usually slow response to change as change accelerates all around us. Many churches are incredibility slow. For most of our history, the pace of cultural and technical change was sufficiently paced for churches to lag only five to ten years. Now churches are lagging 20 and 30 years as the pace of change increases dramatically. To many attendees and members, the church thus seems increasingly irrelevant. To be clear, I am speaking about issues of style, methodology and awareness. Not changing doctrine or biblical truths. A church guest he recently interviewed said it clearly: “I stuck with my parents church as long as I could. But when we had a blow up over a projection screen in the worship centre, I had enough. I wanted to go to a church where matters of minutia were not issues to fight over….”

     So it goes, but ministers like Rainer have not only found their niche, but also their insight. Most of all he has an insight that is also optimistic. Helen Keller was that way and said something I still remember and feel it is relevant to our church life: “Optimism is a form of faith that leads us to achievement…”