Heraclitus said that “nobody steps into the same river twice.” It was his way of underlining that everything is in a state of flux. Only change itself endures. We are reminded sharply of this on the eve of another New Year. But it's also evident all around us as weather patterns find new extremes, global financial markets are rocked and old regimes collapse as protesters storm the gates. New technologies mushroom up in every field making yesterday's innovations seem old-fashioned, even naïve.
Few things, however, have seen more drastic change than overall patterns of religious belief and churchgoing since the end of World War II. In the early fifties, church attendance in the western world was at an all-time high. Even a decade later when I was the minister of an overflowing Anglican parish in a Toronto suburb, almost everybody attended and brought their children with them. New churches were going up everywhere.
Today, many churches are on life-support. Many have been closed. Congregations consist mainly of the elderly. Statistics show that the fastest-growing demographic in North America—including our much more religiously inclined American neighbours—is that of those now reporting to census-takers that they “have no religion.”
The roots of this phenomenon lie closer to home than most church leaders wish to admit. Many still remain in total denial. They attempt to sustain their current orthodoxies by full-blown inertia. It's sad but true that most religious attempts at communication at this historic moment are virtually incomprehensible to modern adults and even less so to the young. The result is a palpable indifference.
No amount of obvious gimmicks – such as the recent fiasco where the Anglican bishops paraded in their archaic robes in front of Union Station handing out invitations to rush-hour crowds begging them to attend services—comes anywhere close to enticing people to go back to something that has not changed since they left it behind. At Halloween it was reported that Evangelical Christians here and in the US were seizing the opportunity to proselytize. The tactic was to “shell out” Bibles or info packs when the kids came knocking. This reeks of desperation.
At this time of crisis for Christianity, a time that is also one of immense opportunity and hope, nothing less is called for than a total rethinking and recasting of the core message to be presented to this and future generations. Old ideas and formulae (dogmas) from distant times have either to be dumped or radically reinterpreted so that they actually connect rather than turn off potential listeners. Concepts and words like salvation, sin, redemption, heaven and hell, eternal life and judgment need to be restated in a wholly transformed modality. Most people see themselves as spiritual beings. It's religion that they can't handle.
Ultimately every religion is a metaphor for God, the sacredness of all creation, and the innate divinity of ever human being on the planet. We need to hear about this from the pulpit. We need to be told about the ongoing evolution of our species to a higher state of being, a maturity of wisdom where we enter into our full inheritance as God's children. None of this possible, however, if a heedless religion keeps speaking a language few if any really understand.