So often as a Church we find ourselves struggling to figure out how to engage the people and either keep them or bring them back to Church. Everyone has an idea of how to modernize, tweak, or dress up our faith to make it more attractive. I heard on a radio show yesterday that an older man was even suggesting we abolish the Sacrament of Reconciliation as it was pushing the teenagers away. For those who have watched their congregation sizes gradually diminishing, it doesn't seem so far fetched that whatever we did to scare people away can be reversed, before we've disappeared entirely. And if we can't even get them in our pews, how are we going to sell them on the idea of vocations to priesthood and religious life?
I think the problem starts with the fact that the actual premise of why our numbers are dwindling is flawed. The idea that suddenly what had been doing before was not working because after nearly two thousand years we weren't hip or modern enough doesn't quite cut it. The reality of the matter is that the numbers in the pews of all ages started to drop when our society quietly shifted from an overtly Christian culture to something unmistakably more secular. Sure, there are some relics leftover to remind us of the sway Christianity once held on our nation, but they are there more for historical significance than spiritual feeling. Our pews, and in fact entire Churches, emptied out not with the young, but with their parents. Their parents had already lost the faith (or never had it) long before they forgot to bother to give Church a try. If these kids have been in Church, it was to get a few Sacraments and even then often out of habit because that's what one does. The Church itself hasn't changed, it's the culture that changed around us. The real problem is that for too long the Church has been happy to rely on the culture to fill our pews and to give Sacraments out realizing that many of these past two generations may never return for weekly Mass after they've got what they wanted from us.
So what should we do? Should we revolutionize our Church? Play pop music during Mass, let priests marry, ordain women priests, tell our nuns and monks to ditch their habits, change our tune on issues of sexual morality from artificial birth control, to premarital sex, to abortion, and follow the current movement of culture to become more relevant? That seems to be the siren call of some from within the Church and also from those who stand on the outside. After all, if practically all the other mainstream denominations have given up the ghost (and dare I say the Holy Spirit) on these issues, why shouldn't we? We clearly can't be complacent anymore, but the question remains as to what's the best action. In our think outside the box culture, changes of this nature seem the obvious choice from the outside, but if we look at our sister denominations, I think it's easy to see that all these changes, while temporarily very popular, aren't bringing sustainable growth. Those other denominations are struggling to stay relevant to the culture, but are still facing the same problems of dwindling numbers.
Change to match a culture so clearly at odds with our faith simply isn't worth it. In my view, too much would be lost for too little gain. It's still clear to me that there is some change needed, and it starts with Christ. Christianity is not a product to be packaged and sold to the masses. When we treat it like the next best thing that can be modified to make it more attractive, we see quickly that people will come through our doors, but won't stay for long. Christianity is not meant to be consumed, it is meant to consume us. Our faith is meant to be a life-changing gift. If we try to bend and stretch Christianity to suit us, like a branch, it will bend for so long and then snap, leaving us broken and bruised with no real truth and comfort to rely on. We need to stop being so busy trying to change Christ and His Gospel, and start letting Him change us. Once we're changed, our faith will shine out of us in a way that will make us a magnet to those living in darkness.
So perhaps the radical thing needed is not to change in all things but name, but to embrace the true core of Christianity: to be a follower of Christ. I'm not talking about superficial adherence to custom and blind acceptance of doctrine. I'm talking about passionate love for our Saviour, and a thirst to know everything we can about the faith and richness of tradition He has given to us through the Church. Souls aren't saved by the habit of attendance, they're saved by truly embracing Christ and falling so in love with Him that coming to the community of Church is the pinnacle of the week (or day). We can't sit idly by with our cool respect for our few passionate members. It's time for us to become a community of true Saints, striving in our weakness to give everything to God. If our faith and lives become authentic, then our faith will attract people. If we love our Church community, then when we invite people we can do so knowing that we aren't trying to yoke them with a heavy burden, but inviting them to accept a gift beyond compare. That's the kind of relevance we should be seeking, a relevance that speaks to hearts and minds, not to an increasingly alien culture.