The Religious Condition of our Times
Recent figures from all across Europe suggest that the tide is beginning to turn for faith in what many have seen as a Godless continent. However, this is a complex story as well as a remarkable shift. It is certainly not the case that there is a uniform return to God across all ages, cultures, classes and genders. Still less is it the case that churches everywhere and of all denominations are growing. The reality is much more variegated and complex.
The key to unlocking the complexity of the situation we face lies in understanding what took place in that remarkable decade – the 1960’s. Some have written of that decade in terms of “a religious crisis” and certainly the figures demonstrate something of that crisis. Church attendance and membership did not just decline so much as fall off a cliff – they plummeted to an extraordinary degree.
The arrival (through immigration) of other faiths, the desire to explore alternative spiritualities together with the wholesale decline of both numbers and vigor in the church led to a perception that Christendom was over for Europe and that the future was likely to be either very secular or very plural or both. To a degree that is exactly what has taken place since the 1960’s and yet the church has not entirely disappeared and there are indications of the return of life and vigor, at least in churches that are taking the mandate of mission seriously.
The 1960’s were a critical moment in redefining the relationship between church and culture – all are agreed on that much – but after that there is little agreement amongst academics as to what was going on at a deeper level. There are at least four views of the significance of the phenomenon of the 1960’s.
The first view suggests that the 1960’s only gave a decisive push to a movement towards a secular view of life that had been gradually developing for 200 years or more. In other words, the 1960’s were merely a kind of tipping point. This has been the largely accepted majority view of sociologists who have accepted the prevailing secularization theories of recent times. The notion that “God is back” is perplexing to those who hold this view and in reality this is a view that is fatally flawed.
A second view suggests that actually the 1960’s were a profound shock to an agreed religious framework which had been healthy up until that point. That viewpoint suggests that religion will recover and that the extraordinary period from 1960 until the present time will turn out to be a strange aberration.
A third view shares the conviction above that religious life was relatively healthy until the 1960’s but then takes the view that what took place at that time was so unprecedented and so decisive that the church will never recover from the subsequent shift in the social and cultural landscape. The church has lost its position of power and influence and will never recover it.
A fourth view suggests there was a huge cultural upheaval in the 1960’s and that social transformation has in fact impacted very widely on social institutions of all kinds: religious, political, industrial, educational, economic to name a few. That shift has exposed some underlying weaknesses in many institutions, including the church, and so the only institutions that are likely to survive and recover are those who can redefine their relationship with a changed culture. (Political parties have been fairly successful in making some of these changes though arguably at the expense of abandoning their larger narratives and adopting instead a consumerist mentality – vote for us and we will make you wealthier and happier.)
For the church, the process of redefining that relationship is what we call mission. I would argue that wherever the church engages in mission it is meeting an increasingly receptive audience. However there are at least two problems with such a situation. The first is that mission is hard work and can take us to the very edge in terms of our spiritual, physical, emotional and imaginative resources. There are many cases of burnout. The second is that many in the church still have absolutely no interest in engaging in mission. The one’s who resist the missional imperative are often the ones who help in the burnout process of those who are responding to the missional call. We are not yet at a tipping point within the church whereby the missional imperative cannot be resisted but that it the tipping point we seek.
(For an in depth examination of the significance of the 1960’s try Hugh McLeod, The Religious Crisis of the 1960’s, OUP, 2007)