The other day, I found in my letter box a beautifully designed and printed magazine left there by the Seventh Day Adventists. I was attracted to an article headed, "Empty Pews: Why people don't go to church". As its introduction said: "Why so many drop-outs. Bruce Manners looks at a recent study that gives some answers."
I was initially buoyed to find that it was based on research by Perth's Edith Cowan University and National Church Life Survey (NCLS). I wasn't aware of NCLS but the mention of a university made me hope that its information would be sound. It was only when I bothered to check the footnotes that I discovered that the research had been conducted in 1998, well over a decade ago.
Not only did the introduction describe the underlying study as "recent" but the article itself was crafted to imply that the study had been completed in recent weeks.
Strike one against the magazine for its unethical misrepresentation of old data as current.
Nevertheless, the opportunity to discover why a religion thought its attendances were declining was attractive so I read on.
According to the article, the top-ranked answer was that church is boring. That was the reason given by 42% of the infrequent attenders and non attenders. But in a rather surprising observation, a Dr John Bellamy, who was involved in designing the survey, opined that "The reasons boil down to a number of things. One that stood out in the research was the importance of relationships. We noticed in the data that whether or not the spouse was attending church was an important factor and (sic) whether you yourself attended." Maybe that "and" should have been "on". Whatever, Dr Bellamy seems prepared to blame church going men and women for not prevailing upon their spouses to join them.
But Dr Bellamy's suggestion does not sit well with what the survey showed to be the second most important reason why people do not go to church which was "beliefs of the church". Even fifteen years ago, this surely should have alerted churches to the big problem they all face, namely that much of what they believe is simply no longer credible.
Maybe the biggest single tsunami ever to have hit traditional Christian belief has been evolution. Except for fundamentalist Christians who are prepared to look their Bible straight in the eye and declare that evolution is not true (it's only a theory, they say, forgetting that so is gravity), traditional Christians have big questions to answer. And modern youngsters, boned up as they are on the overwhelming evidence that shows we are an evolved species that did not begin with two first parents who already looked exactly like us, find the standard Christian theology incredible. Let's look at a couple of problems.
Most Christian churches teach some variant of the following:
Everything, including human beings, was created by God according to his design.
Human beings began with two first parents who, from the word go, looked as we look today.
The first parents, and all their descendants, had immortal souls. Lesser animals (sub-humans) don't.
Our first parents created sin by disobeying God. All descendants of our first parents inherited this sin. Consequently, their immortal souls would not have been able to access the eternity in heaven that God had intended them to enjoy unless something could take place that would redeem them.
God decided that the way to redeem humans was to produce a son and have him crucified.
Because all this came to pass, humans' right to an eternity in heaven was reinstated.
Except for those persuaded by church, school or home to value faith over evidence, modern youngsters easily see holes in this account. They are quick to ask why, if God wanted hordes of us humans hanging out in heaven with him, he didn't just put us there from the word go.
Or, if he knows everything, why he needed to put us through a testing process called "life" to find out if we were worthy of him.
After attending small country Catholic schools and Armidale teachers’ College (NSW), Glen Coulton taught in government primary and secondary schools for eighteen years. In 1975, he was “temporarily” deployed to a HO position (curriculum and assessment) from which he never escaped despite being restructured out of existence twice. A period spent studying Item Response Theory (Rasch analysis) with Ben Wright at the University of Chicago led eventually to his involvement with the design and implementation of the NSW Basic Skills Testing Program whose successors include NAPLAN. He retired in 1994 and now spends his time taking and presenting courses with the Lake Macquarie University of the Third Age (U3A) and encouraging recorder playing.