The author was born into a Methodist farming family near Kingaroy in Queensland. His early education was at the Queensland Agricultural College, the Queensland Teachers College, and as an external student of the University of Queensland. Following some years as a teacher in secondary schools, he joined the university system and spent his career as an academic economist, retiring as Professor of Economics and Dean of the Faculty of Commerce and Economics at the University of Queensland.
Following a youthful period as an avowed atheist, later seen as a healthy experience in his life, he slowly and carefully returned to Christianity through the influence of some lay friends, some less conventional clergy, some challenging writers on religion and the church, a patient wife, and the need to open a spiritual dimension in the lives of their children.
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What do the Laypeople Think? The Silent Voice of the Departing Church Laity
When we get together as ordinary lay folks for a ‘cuppa’ or a meal, the conversation often turns to ‘the church’, ‘our church’ or ‘the clergy’. Years ago, the conversation would likely have been conducted in very respectful tones, in deference to an honoured Christian institution and the clergy, the men of stature who ‘did the work of God’ in our community. Today, in this more cynical and judgmental post-modern age, the lay conversations seem to be much less sympathetic to the church and the clergy. Indeed it sometimes seems that the church and the clergy are fair game for the barbs of everybody – the columnists, the philosophers, the novelists, the documentary makers, and even the ordinary person in the street – including many who never attend church, and even many who are in the church pews. How many times have we as the laypeople (both church attenders and non-attenders) made or heard suggestions about ‘what is wrong with the church’ or ‘what the church ought to do’? Many, many times.
We, the laity, often seem to have a like-dislike relationship with the church/clergy. We love and treasure the church for what it is supposed to stand for in society – goodness, love, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness of our weaknesses, an avenue to a loving God, and some promise of an eternity beyond the few years we have on this earth. And yet we often show a massive indifference and sometimes an active dislike towards the church, as we continue to walk away from what the churches have to offer. Church attendances are falling rapidly – respect for the churches and what they say is weakening – those attending churches here in Australia are very much a minority group in society, almost a sect, in the midst of a society with other priorities. The love and compassion are certainly still there, as evidenced by the many dedicated souls who work so hard in the churches, but still many laypeople are saying that they are bored and unfulfilled by what the churches have to offer and are leaving, or close to leaving. The days have long gone when the main issue facing the churches was ‘winning more souls for Christ’ – the issue now is stemming the haemorrhage of attenders from the local churches.
So who speaks for the laity who have left the churches or who are feeling uncomfortable or frustrated as they sit in the pews? Where is their voice as they walk out the doors without a farewell wave, or contemplate doing so, or simply wish that things were better? We hear the ‘official’ voice of ‘the church’ when church leaders pronounce on some issue, or the clergy lead us through the rituals of worship. We sometimes (much less as the years pass) seem to take for granted that ultimate religious authority and wisdom rests with them, because they are the ‘professionals’ who have read and studied about God and Christ, and we are really only the ‘amateurs’ in matters religious. We hear lay voices in church meetings, often seeking a way forward for their local church, mostly supportive, occasionally destructive, as they administer the affairs of the local church. But we seldom, if ever, hear the silent voices of the increasing numbers of laypeople (attenders and non-attenders) who are saddened by the progressive decline in the size, the status and the spirit of the churches, saddened as they see their friends leave them, and by the apparent unwillingness of church leaders either to recognise the problem or to actually do something practical to address the problem. They are saddened to see the once-mighty churches, with so much potential and with an army of dedicated workers, reduced to shadows of their former selves.
We can already see signs of immense change in the nature of the laity of today. The laity of old were mainly ‘followers’ in the sense that they took for granted the authority of the church on matters of God and religion and were more or less content to follow the practices and beliefs of their own institutional church. The laity of today with their post-modern values have less respect for institutions and authority – they value more their freedom to decide for themselves what they will or will not accept, and they are far better prepared than the laity at any time in history to make this decision. Even the ‘oldies’ in the laity of today seem to be absorbing much of this culture change and can be heard to complain about ‘being treated like children’ and being asked ‘to park their brains at the door’ by a paternalistic church. It seems that the laity have changed dramatically over the last several decades, but that the churches have not come to grips with the extent of these changes.
This book is intended as a contribution to establishing a new integrity and a new awareness for the Christian laity in Australia. In more formal terms, there were three aims to achieve:
(i) A lay perspective of the laity. This book is written about the church laity, for the laity, by a layperson drawing primarily on the collective insights and experience of many lay friends and acquaintances (as well as some of the writers on religious issues). There are some (not many) books written about the laity by scholars and the clergy; this book is written with the laity, in that I try very hard to capture the essence of the thoughts, opinions and comment expressed to me over many years of casual conversation with lay friends and acquaintances. I have drawn on this rich source of opinion which has virtually never been sought or acknowledged by the churches. They are the silent voices which I attempt to represent here – they are the voices we should hear if we are to come to an understanding of the lay mind and what this means for the churches, because the laity are those who are effectively determining the future of the churches, or whether the churches of today actually have a future. They are the voices which will determine how many people will be in the pews of the future churches.
(ii) We, the laity, need to know ourselves. We live in an exciting time in the lay religious world. We have access to unprecedented levels of information about churches and religion – from books, research papers, documentaries, commentary, and the magnificent resources of the Internet. There are research studies galore, new interpretations of God and the Bible and religion generally, and the changing nature of the laity in the modern world. This book provides an extensive ‘this is us’ look at ourselves as laity, drawing on this mine of research and information. Since we are all products of our history, we will be surprised by the extent to which the church of history still influences our lives as the laity of today. We do of course, gain a great deal of strength from our historical past, but also run the very real risk of being slowed down by considering the church to be unchangeable and ignoring the need for change.
The book includes two chapters on ‘the layperson today’. Chapter 3 provides a ‘facts and figures’ summary, showing the trends in church affiliation and church attendance, and some quite important insights into what church attenders actually feel about church and religion. It transpires, for example that church attenders value most the caring/social relationships of church and only about 25 percent of attenders place primary value on the worship service. This chapter also reports on detailed studies of why people don’t go to church. It reports, for example that the most commonly stated reason for not attending church is that the services are seen as ‘boring and unfulfilling’ – we might ask how the ‘Good News’ of Christian history, the reason for the past success of the church, has been transformed today into something regarded by many as ‘boring and unfulfilling’.
Chapter 4 takes a different view of the ‘layperson today’, considering the church ex-attenders and never-attenders. It reports, for example, on a study of those who were in the church but have rejected the Christian faith and walked out. Some are reactors/rebels who are angry with God or the church, some are disenchanted/disappointed who slowly become disenchanted with the church over many years, and others are the post-moderns who have developed with modern society a very different set of values and mindset and see the churches as irrelevant in today’s world. And, of course, ‘knowing ourselves’ means also that we must appreciate the majority of the population who have never been to church apart from the rites-of-passage weddings and funerals, etc. We have a great deal to learn about our own failures as church from those who choose not to accept what we have to offer. Any school with a drop-out rate as high as the churches of today would rightly attract intense criticism and be forced to undergo a rigorous performance evaluation.
We should be aware of the push-pull factors in the Christian churches – the push or negative factors in our church which are discouraging the laity in our churches and the pull factors which are attracting church lay attenders to seek their spiritual contentment in other places.
(iii) A voice for the laity. We in the laity seem to be accustomed to the church or the clergy speaking for us with the voice of authority on many issues, and assuming that ‘they’ know what is best for us, at least in matters religious. This sentiment is rapidly passing with time as the modern more-educated and discerning laity seek to develop their own theological positions which are often quite different from the ‘theologically-correct’ position of the church or the clergy. While church leaders continue the formal process of running the churches, the real decisions about the future of the church are made by the laity. They make the final decision whether or not to accept the packages of beliefs and practices offered by the smorgasbord of churches today, and their silent voice continues to question or reject these packages more as time passes.
This book is an attempt to articulate (particularly in the later chapters) these silent lay voices, by getting to the nerve-endings of the relationship between the laity and the clergy. It examines the general package of traditional ‘things’ offered by the churches in the light of the modern lay mind and points to the credibility gap between the two. It considers the evidence which tells us what the laity of tomorrow will accept or reject and concludes that the church of tomorrow will need to be very different from the church of today if it is to survive in a sustainable state.
In books like this one, we often look to the final chapters to read first, because they summarise most of the book and could save a lot of reading. The final chapters in this book are written quite differently, in the form of an informal sharing from ‘we’ and ‘us’, the laity, to ‘you’ the clergy. They attempt to express our silent lay voices. We examine the quite deep cultural differences between ‘us’ and ‘you’ and our points of conflict in roles and attitudes. One interesting finding from the research suggests that although ‘we’ and ‘you’ tend to be closer than we think on most issues, there is a quite significant difference between ‘our’ attitudes and what you perceive to be ‘our’ attitudes, i.e. we do not understand each other very well. In fact we regularly misunderstand each other, leading to conflict. After two millennia of the Christian church, perhaps we could have hoped for something better!
The final chapters of the book address some of the critical issues which will determine if the church is sustainable even in the next few decades. Firstly, we could describe the church culture as one of the elements which made the church of history so magnificent, but we could today describe it as one of the elements which could well ensure our demise. The over-arching ‘presence’ of authority, changelessness, eternal wisdom and infallibility, theological correctness, with sometimes appalling leadership, and reliance on God to fix the problems we have created – these things have brought about a crisis of credibility which is both quite apparent and very disturbing to the laity of today. We (the laity) speak frankly with you (the clergy) about our feelings and our reaction to your style and leadership – it emerges that you continue to misunderstand our perceptions as the laity of the church.
The book closes with some simple questions – questions we should all have asked ourselves many years ago, and questions we need to address openly, honestly and practically if we intend to make a difference to the expected future pious decline of the churches. These questions would include the following:
Is the conservative evangelical or Pentecostalist path the only road to church ‘success’? Is it possible to have a non-fundamentalist or non-Pentecostalist church today which is ‘successful’ i.e. growing in numbers, faith, support and energy, so that it is sustainable in the long run and universally attractive? What sort of church will attract our lay minds and our interest, get us walking back in numbers, voting with our feet to be part of it, rather than walking away? What sort of package must it offer to overcome the massive lay cynicism and rejection which now exists? What type of clergy will it need to lead this new church to higher things? What will we and our successors need to change to bring this about? How can we, collectively and individually, present the message of Christ to the post-modern mind?
There seems to be a new dimension opened when a layperson writes about ‘church’ matters. Some clergy friends were surprised and somewhat dismissive that a mere layperson should take such a step, into the traditional preserve of the clergy. My claim, and that of many lay friends, is that it is only the laity who can tell the story of the lay mind and frustrations, as the gulf between the laity and the clergy widens in today’s world. The clergy, like all professional groups, follow the good example and standards of their predecessors, with the authority vested in them by history. There are three sets of players in this sad unfolding story of today’s church, the clergy, the laity and those charged with church leadership, and we must be honest enough to run the ruler over each group if we are to make progress.
Finally, it really is no exaggeration to say that we in the ‘liberal’ churches face challenges of historic proportions if we are to sustain ourselves in the long run. The final chapter spells out these challenges. The challenge to church culture is to provide a pew-oriented (or client-oriented) church rather than a pulpit-oriented church, to develop a new honesty and respect for the mind of the laity, to remove the cancer of the fundamentalist-liberal schism in the churches, and to cultivate spirituality rather than religion. The challenge to the clergy is to admit the failures of the present practices and develop new and fulfilling ways of presenting the ‘Good News’. The challenge to church leaders is to develop awareness of the problems facing the churches and to lead from the front in developing strategies to face these issues. The challenge to the laity is equally formidable – to be a positive part of this process, to add our voice in the search for a church which will bring us walking back to church.
I hope that many of my lay friends and acquaintances will see their own concerns and experiences reflected figuratively in the pages of this book. I have tried hard to represent them faithfully. It is my hope also that this book will provoke a more open discourse on the silent voice of the laity in our churches today.
Sherwood ~ Rod Jensen.
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