CRISIS OF FAITH?

Statistics Canada, quoted in the Toronto Star today, outlined recent finding regarding faith across Canada.

The latest data shows the proportion of non-religious Canadians has more than doubled in the past 20 years — to 34.6 per cent, up from 16.5 per cent in 2001.

Meanwhile, though Christianity remains the majority religion in Canada, only 53 per cent of the population reported an affiliation with a Christian religion, down 14 per cent from 2011 and 24 per cent from 2001.

Statistics Canada said in its report, released Wednesday, that “the decline in religious affiliation is consistent with previous findings that fewer people reported the importance of religious or spiritual beliefs in their lives,” down from 71 per cent in 2003 to 54 per cent in 2019.

I suspect that one reason for this decline is that tradition no longer has the weight it may have enjoyed in the past to cause people to ‘do the right thing outwardly’ even when harboring doubt and conflict within. In other words, attending church as a matter of form even though privately finding the experience irrelevant or boring. Today there is no stigma or pressure and we merely choose to not attend. That’s far more honest and healthy. It helpfully faces churches with the challenge of how to respond to a cynical, disenchanted, or unbelieving world.

In the past I have heard many church leaders shrug their shoulders and exclaim that times have changed, “People are not interested in God anymore!” They have focused on them rather than on us. The sad reality is that the customer is usually more right than wrong when they refuse to buy what is being offered. It no longer meets their need, smells rotten and is past the due date, promises more than it delivers, or plain and simple fails to arouse interest.

Religion as a ritual, ethic, formal practice, and rulebook has seldom caused people to jump for joy or desire more of what it offers. Historically, Christianity won influence through power-sharing with Romans, controlling vast swaths of land upon which peasants farmed in Europe and England. It wielded education as a means of elevating clergy as privileged and congregations as ignorant, to be controlled and patronized. As society has shifted and those are no longer the norms (thank God) the scrutiny of the actual message and the relevance of Christianity has increased. While the congregation has demanded more unfortunately the ‘professionals’ have often resisted or failed to rise to the valid critique and challenge. Contemporary churches are trying hard to bridge the gap while still having challenges appeasing the masses, finding the line between entertainment and spiritual integrity, and resisting celebrity cult status among leaders and musicians. Ultimately, in every strand of spiritual expression, Jesus calls forth character to align with everything presented in his name.

Which takes us all the way back to the life and times of Jesus. The Jewish tradition, synagogue rituals, clergy dominance, and congregational exploitation; nothing dissimilar to our history. Although secularism in these days is far more prevalent. There was a good reason that when Jesus was born it was declared that God’s Word had become flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). The revelation accompanying Jesus was more than facts, teaching, rituals, and rules. The entire weight and emphasis of the Word made Flesh was teaching wrapped up in a human relationship radiating unconditional supernatural love.

Such a radical possibility was not remotely what people were used to from religious leaders. Until Jesus, ordinary people felt ‘talked down to’, second class citizens, never good enough, always having to pay taxes or do something to fulfil a spiritual obligation overseen by clergy. And they were not stupid, they witnessed the hypocrisy and the double-standards of the leaders, but they were powerless. Jesus shattered the mold and revealed himself as a servant, a healer, a teacher, a friend to all – whatever their social status or their past or present ‘sins’. Jesus’ demeanor and care for those who encountered him was unprecedented, awakening something within them that thirsted for more. It was a spiritual hunger yearning for authentic encounter, even if they could not put it into words. If God is a Father and is anything like this person Jesus, then why would I not want to believe in him? It all worked back to front. People encountered the love of God in a person first, and then they began to ask questions in order to understand.

Therein lies the dilemma in our present day. Too much talking and information up front first, too little acceptance, unconditional love, and kindness experienced first hand to whet the appetite. Jesus talked to people, walked among them, shared meals, even wasted infinite amounts of time being with others. The majority of his miracles happened when he was on the way somewhere else. In other words, the spiritual, the supernatural, and the ordinary everyday life was completely intertwined – making relevance obvious. Jesus welcomed all and sundry into conversation. Nicodemus, an academic who scratched his head at what he heard and saw in Jesus came to him to find answers in the dark of night. He chatted with women who were ostracized by others and patiently debated repeatedly with his impetuous fisherman friend Peter.

Jesus was no politically correct, limp wristed spiritual anemic avoiding confrontation and needing to be liked by everyone. When the occasion demanded he spoke hard truths to deaf and belligerent ears. Just read his piercing challenge to the religious leaders in Matthew 23. He experienced massive rejection as many disciples left him when he taught about the meaning of his body and blood. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, and when he saw the agony of his friends, Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus died. Amidst all the messiness of ordinary life the Word made Flesh walked alongside ordinary people – listening, embracing, and accepting them with dignity and grace – even as they made their choices, good and bad. Remember how he offered bread and wine to Judas at the Last Supper before he told him to leave and do what he had resolved to do? He refused to buckle under pressure from Pilate and was crucified for something he could easily have avoided or compromised over (dare I say it, as we so often rationalize and do). His disciples abandoned him at the cross because of fear and self preservation. Yet after the resurrection Jesus came back to find them with even greater love and grace. How much of that quality of love do we experience, even among fellow Christians?

The stark and profound difference between speaking ‘the Word of God’ as truth and believing is having the opportunity to experience the Word made Flesh in person, rather than merely processing abstract principles or academic bible verses in our heads. Jesus held the Word of God in one hand and the love of God in the other. He brought them together in every conversation and relationship thereby feeding the listeners’ heart, mind, and spirit. Love in real time customized for me. Jesus didn’t merely talk about God healing, he placed hands on the sick and they were healed. He demonstrated grace by touching lepers, embracing prostitutes, dining with tax collectors, serving Roman soldiers, engaging with religious leaders, befriending fishermen. There was no hiding behind education or a pulpit.

John, one of the youngest of Jesus’ disciples wrote as an older man described his experience of Jesus like this: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim….” (1 John 1.1-2)

People have not changed over the centuries. The hunger remains in all of us for something more, something true. something good and kind and hope-filled. The New Testament is written by very ordinary people who encountered Jesus firsthand. Their words are alive because they speak from an encounter that turned their lives upside down and blew their hearts out long before their minds could catch up. For the stats in Canada to change and move in the opposite direction we need to open our hearts as well as our minds – to share the life of Jesus with deeper, stronger, and much more robust love – both within the church and far beyond its boundaries. Taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8) is not intuitively obvious – but it remains a great starting point for revelation – and it only comes through relationships in the flesh.

Jesus was alive to those around him. Communication was real, relevant, often probably with a smile. Like this….

Or with the raw emotion and confusion expressed in Jesus Christ Superstar….

John Cox

Christian Author

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