A series of reflections on challenges facing the Christian church as we move into 2017.
We are witnessing a dramatic decline in belief in God in Australia. Since 1991 the number of Australians who believe in God has declined from 78% to 55%. When this is broken down on by age it is evident that young people are growing up in a world that they experience as increasingly devoid of belief in God.
Philosopher JP Moreland comments that
A culture has a set of background assumptions—we can call it a plausibility structure—that sets a tone, a framework, for what people think, to what they are willing to listen and evaluate, how they feel and how they act. This plausibility structure is so widespread and subtle that people usually don’t even know it is there even though it hugely impacts their perspective on the world.
The plausibility structures of our culture are being shaped profoundly by the embrace of science as the only path to certain knowledge and the rise of religious pluralism. These create a perspective that religion is irrelevant to knowing reality. Religion appeals to revelation, which is scientifically not verifiable and therefore cannot be trusted, while the presence and visibility of many religions in Australia reinforces the arbitrary nature of their claims. Religion may prove useful to some as a system of meaning, but as a system of truth it is worthless.
In view of this, I expect that belief in God will continue to plummet in Australia.
How should churches respond? I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts, but I suspect we need to do the following:
1. Provide members of our churches with coherent arguments that show that belief in God is plausible and beneficial. This needs to go beyond the intellectually flimsy stuff we get out of places like the creation science movement that expose Christians to ridicule. Rather we need to draw on resources such as leading scientists, philosophers, and commentators who embrace faith and articulate the case for it.
2. Encourage Christians to become involved in and express their faith through culture forming areas such as the arts, literature, and science.
3. Cultivate in our churches a culture of deep personal, experiential engagement with God. We need to re-engage with spiritual disciplines adapted for the modern age, so that we are not simply articulating a set of beliefs, but a lived reality of engagement with the divine.
4. Cultivate in our churches a lifestyle that is built on values with sharp points of distinction from those of our wider culture. At the moment our distinctiveness seems to lie in our sexual ethics, rather than a much more profound distinctiveness at the level of values. If we can cultivate lifestyles grounded in extraordinary love, deep generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation, passion for justice, and the like then we offer a faith that is worth believing in and embracing.