Godtalk: Church going today


Mass at the Sacred Heart church in Edinburgh
Church going today

There has been a considerable drop-off in church attendance. And it’s not paralleled by the same widespread growth in atheism and agnosticism. Rather, more and more people are claiming to be spiritual but not religious, faith-filled but not church-goers. Why this exodus from our churches?

The temptation is to blame what’s happening on secularity. Secular culture, many would argue, is a powerful narcotic both for good and for bad. It swallows up most of us with its seductive promises of instant heaven this side of eternity. Within our secularized world, they say, the pursuit of the good life squeezes out a deeper religious desire.

But is this true? Is secular culture the real cause? Are we, church-goers, the last remnant of God and truth left standing, marginalised in a society that’s shallow, irreligious, and godless?

Many would argue that this conclusion is far too simple. Secular society can certainly be faulted, but beneath its shallowness and allergy to church-going, real religious desire still burns and the Church must question itself. Why aren’t more people turning to the Church to deal with their religious needs?

Why are so many people who are seeking spirituality not interested in looking at what the Church offers? Why, instead, are they turning to everything except the Church? Why, indeed, do so many people have the attitude: “The Church has nothing to offer me: I find it boring, irrelevant, caught up inside its own petty issues, hopelessly out of step with real life.”

Secularity is, no doubt, partly to blame, but so too is the Church itself. According to an old axiom, ‘All atheism is a parasite off bad theism.’ That logic also holds regarding attitudes towards the Church: bad attitudes towards the Church feed off bad church practices. As Pope Francis reminds us, when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.

Blaming the world for our problems of church-going does nothing to enhance the world’s respect for religion or for Christianity. The drop-off in church attendance is much more our own fault,  because far too often we are not radiating a Church with a compassionate embrace and we are not in fact addressing the real energies burning in people.

The secular world isn’t, in itself, irreligious. Rather it sees our churches as self-absorbed, not understanding the real world, and unsympathetic to its desires, its wounds, and its needs.

Someone put it this way.  As Christian churches we have the living water, the water Christ promised would quench all fires and all thirsts. But, this is the problem.  We aren’t getting the living water to where the fires are!  Instead we are spraying water everywhere, except where it’s burning!   

The answer to the exodus from our churches is not to blame the culture; it’s to make better churches.

Peter Knott SJ