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Why Churches are losing Influence

Churchgoers and pastors alike admit that traditional religion is on the skids.
In an age of insecurity and few moral guidelines, the churches' failure to
provide spiritual leadership has been a crushing blow to Western society.


WE CHURCHMEN are gifted at changing wine into water — watering down religion," Yale's Chaplain William S. Coffin, Jr., has been quoted as saying.

Never has church attendance been so high and church influence so low. Only a few smaller denominations — who still vigorously practice their beliefs — are holding the allegiance of their membership. But most churches are hollow religious shells. And the problem is not limited to the United States.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said: "The churches aren't reaching people as much as they ought to." The Bishop of Woolwich wrote: "The sanctions of Sinai have lost their terror, and people no longer accept the authority of Jesus even as a great moral teacher."

But why? What is wrong? Are the churches meeting their responsibility for providing spiritual guidance to their flocks? When Senior Editor J. Robert Moskin posed this question to late theologian Paul Tillich, he got the following answer: "Simply, No! But I know the struggle of many ministers who try it and are defeated and almost go to pieces by this defeat" (Morality in America, p. 167).


A Minister Quits

For one minister — an example of many — it meant the end of the line. “I still believe in Jesus Christ," he said. “I still want to serve Him. . . This is why I quit the ministry."

These paradoxical words were spoken by a former minister of a large denomination. This individual "never expected life as a minister to be easy" and fought family and friends to enter the profession. He sacrificed and worked part-time to pay his way through seven years of college and seminary.

His eyes were wide open from the start. “I knew," he stated, "that the church as an institution was tar from perfect. Even as a youngster I had been appalled by the unchristian activities of many who were pillars of the church."

But this minister decided he still wanted to represent his denomination. The initial and only congregation of this young minister was well above the national average in income and intellect. That, combined with the imposing stone church buildings, large parsonage and good salary, made it the prestige church of the town. In the way some might look at it, what more could a budding young minister ask for?

Yet, in a short time, this minister became disillusioned, frustrated, confused. He finally quit.

BUT he was merely one individual of the 25 percent of Roman Catholic priests and 12 percent of Protestant clergymen who said they were thinking of quitting the ministry.


Religious Nations?

The United States is nominally the most religious country in the world. In 1966, almost three fourths of those interviewed by The Catholic Digest said that religion was "very important" to them. Yet in a given week, a recent Gallup poll shows that only a little over one third of Protestants, hardly more than one half of Roman Catholics, and less than one fifth of Jews will attend church or synagogue services.

Professor C. C. Goen of the Wesley Theological Seminary highlighted the problem in a recent speech: even though 70 out of 100 Americans belong to a religious body, "we are not at all the `Christian' nation we like to think we are but essentially a secular one."

The situation is even more obvious in other countries.

England: Less than one Church of England member in 10 will darken the parish church door on Easter, not to mention regular weekly services. The Congregational churches in Britain took a survey a few months ago and found that 60 percent of their worshippers were women and 68 percent over age 45.

Canada: A national magazine, Maclean's, conducted in the 60's a religious survey of a typical Canadian town. Some 70 percent of Protestants inter viewed said they attended church at least once a month. Yet only one in five "could remember having done anything within the last year as a direct result of church influence." Catholics were ostensibly more fervent, nine out of 10 going to mass each week. Yet only one in five admitted to following church teachings on birth control.

France: Something like 18,000 churches have been abandoned or are in danger of being abandoned. This means that every second church or chapel is facing decay or "death" in the near future unless drastic action is taken.

Germany: Der Spiegel found in a detailed analysis that every third West German believes "God is dead." Only one half feel there is a life after death. This in a country in which almost everyone (94%) has some connection with a church.

As one headline put it, West Germans as a whole find the church "merely useless." About seven out of 10 are convinced they "can be a Christian without a church." Complete indifference is the way to describe the feelings of most.

Scandinavia: Most Scandinavians are non-churchgoers. Approximately 90 percent staying home on an average Sunday morning.

South Africa: A leading magazine, Personality, wrote that religion is losing its hold. Many of those who still attend churches do so only out of habit rather than real conviction.


Madison Avenue Hits Religion

This real decline in religious interest, whatever the facade of religiosity, is highlighted on the church pages of most large newspapers. Witness such appeals as "Discover the Difference at . . ." or "Begin the Day at the Top . . . Chapel, Words and Music in a Casual Atmosphere, 23 Floors above . . ." or "Five Great Drive-In Walk-In Services Every Sunday."

These are not tongue-in-cheek spoofs. They are real examples from the church page of a large daily American newspaper.

This is not far off from the satirical prediction of Methodist minister Norman Deming of Seneca, New York. He sardonically suggested by the year 2040: "Advertising agencies will be employed by churches as they are now by business firms. Technivision ads will be obnoxious to gain attention. . ."

These might include such themes as: "Baptists feel good, like a Christian should!" "You can be sure — if it's Catholicism!" "Presbyterianism keeps your soul on the go!" Perhaps you would hear that "Christianity will relieve your anxieties and distresses and will not upset your conscience."

It's not the year 2040, but Pastor Deming's mock prophecies seem already to be coming to pass!


Crisis Is Here!

Religious lip service is easy to find. There seems to be little root or deep feeling in the avowed faith of the majority. Theologians and laymen alike point out the superficiality in it all.

Dr. Eugene Nida, a foremost American linguist, told a Mennonite board of missions: "Of course 93 percent of the people in some areas will say they believe in God, but I doubt if 20 percent of those regulate their lives on the basis of believing in God. . ."

Dr. Nida pointed out that North Americans are really practical "atheists" on the whole, regardless of their profession of religious beliefs.

Professor Will Herberg of Drew University told an audience that religion, despite its outward boom, is making little impact: "Those who think religion is important also state that religious beliefs have little relation to their economic and political opinions."

The chief importance of religion to most is giving them identification, something they can say they belong to. A Harvard University study of American business practices found that a person's religion or lack of it seemed to have no bearing on his business ethics.

No wonder a leading German theologian, Walter Kasper, at an international theological conference in Brussels, viewed Christianity as being in an "extremely precarious situation." The congress president Dutch Catholic Edward Schillebeeck described the situation in the churches as having "reached a crisis."


Falling Down on the Job

Conservative Rabbi Joseph H. Wagner, in an address before his congregation in Hollywood, concluded that organized religion is to blame for the mess the world is in — because it has failed to do its job properly. He asserted that if "religious people would put into practice the tenets they affirm on Sabbath in their temples and synagogues, or on Sundays in their churches, they could revolutionize society."

Danish Minister J. V. Sorensen echoed the same thought: "Even from people who regularly attend church, complaints are heard that they do not get anything out of going to church."

Part of the reason is that many ministers are themselves theologically confused. Today, it is a common view to consider much of the basic textbook of Christianity — the Bible — to be myth. Just how much is myth is hotly debated. Theologians are divided also on whether the Ten Commandments are "relevant" in our modern age.

Certainly with such confusion concerning the very basic under-girding of Christianity or Judaism, is it any wonder pastors are confused to the point that one minister preaching in the pulpit asked himself: "What am I doing here anyway?" Yet, a vast majority of ministers' disillusionment with the ministry revolves around the attitudes of their flocks.


People Problems

Both sides have a point. Congregations claim they are not stimulated by their worship services. Pastors indignantly reply that if they did really challenge their flocks and try to stir them up, they would soon be preaching to empty pews or looking for another pulpit. In the words of Presbyterian minister Donald F. Campbell of Stamford, Connecticut: "You don't try to moralize anymore because these people would just walk out on you."

The problem is brilliantly highlighted by the tongue-in-cheek pastoral "success" book How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious by Methodist minister Charles Merrill Smith.

Pastor Smith's book is ostensibly a handbook to the minister whose only goal is material and professional success, who wants the quickest way to the top. His real object is, of course, quite different, as he explains in the "Benediction" at the end of the book.

By poking fun and satire at those less enviable aspects of modern religion, he hopes to help eliminate them. His "exposé" points up in humor what many other theologians have said in more serious tones.

For example, the chapter "How to Be Impressive in the Pulpit" demonstrates that the way to be a popular and successful minister is to preach what everyone wants to hear. People like "soothing words" rather than the pointed message of the Bible: "The first rule for the popular preacher to remember as he prepares a sermon is that style is of enormous importance while content makes little ultimate difference" (p. 31, emphasis ours throughout the article).

Ministers are urged to preach about sin — without getting specific, of course — because "people will never connect the words with anything that middle-class white Protestants do, so you can flail away at sin and sinners to your heart's content" (p. 37).

Author Smith is at pains to distinguish the "pious image" — a put-on front of what people expect in a clergyman — from the truly religious attitude of the sincere and dedicated minister: "It can be demonstrated with astonishing ease that the one thing the church cannot abide is a genuinely religious man, and that it takes a generous endowment of other qualities to offset this handicap if a man is to become a successful clergyman" (pp. x-xi).


The Idols Worshipped by Society

Other ministers have discussed the "suburban church" attitude derided by How to Become a Bishop. A Presbyterian minister in Southern California described his parishioners: "By living in suburbia, it appears to them as if they've 'made it,' so they look to the church simply as a pious club to soothe their wounds and bless the status quo and not disturb anything."

This may explain why an Episcopal pastor in Virginia complained: "These people just use the church for what they think they can get out of it." A fellow pastor in the same denomination added: "God is in the background, usually. . . When a real problem comes up they forget the church and say, 'What's the quickest way to buy myself out of this?' "

Parishioners on the whole do not know what their churches teach and do not care. But if they did know, what purpose would it serve? Would they allow their churches' beliefs to interfere with their daily lives, anyway?

One of Pastor Smith's colleagues, Dr. Dow Kirkpatrick, agreed: "Any time a minister makes it clear that he takes seriously the Gospel and intends that it shall result in decisions in individual and community life, he's in trouble. He's going to be the target of people who want to get rid of him. That's an occupational hazard among preachers."

Is it any wonder that ministers and priests are leaving their chosen profession in such numbers?

Some have thought that the cause has been mainly the generally low pay or the requirement of celibacy (among Catholics). But studies show surprisingly different reasons.