I would like to propose a reason for the rapid decline of church participation in Australia. From the 2011 to the 2016 Australian National Census Christianity declined to 52.1%. From this percentage 90% of whom do not regularly practice their faith. I propose that these two percentages are actually linked. They show the devolving nature of Christian participation. This is not just a decline in numbers, from one reason for the decline such as being upset or displaced from the disillusionment of the church. Some reasons may include the lack of women in leadership positions, the royal commission into the sexual abuse of children, or the treatment of the LGBTi community. These are important issues, but the devolving nature of the church goes to a deeper reality. This question is not just an ethical stance on what is right or what is wrong, but the church has failed to evolve in the process for the Christian’s search for meaning. The person’s relationship with the church has devolved and not evolved. Because of this the individual chooses to detach from the church and reattach into other areas where they find meaning. Such is the area of science, humanism, materialism, consumerism, the environment, business or entertainment. Our culture today places emphasis on the nature of happiness. When staying with the church, it may seem difficult and hard to evolve and it is no wonder large numbers of people leave the church.
How can the church evolve?
To prevent the slippery slide out of the church, what can we do? But, note that there is nothing wrong with this as it is an expression of search for meaning from the individual's perpsective, we must look beyond one stage for an answer. From this lens we must realise we cannot provide everything from one stage for the answer. We must move beyond the stage which we are at, and consider several stages. In a sense to undergo a constant conversion to a deeper reality.
Most Christians are born into the Christian faith. The beginning may not be as simple as an individual's stage, but from within the context of the family home in house. The house and family’s role are to form the initial Christian story so that the individual plays an active role as a Christian. But already if the family does not do things like pray together, read scripture together, there can be devolving or losing of faith.
Next, the church provides a community where the person can belong. The word “church” here is used to refer to the “local church”. Hopefully friendships form here and the sense of connection to the community of faith. This would see the individual and the family as Christians. Sadly, in most local Catholic churches is has devolved to a clerical centred community. Where the priest controls what does or does not happen or where community places the priest as the centre wanting them to be the active doer and the individual as the silent observer. But, the laity can be just as to blame for clericalism as can a priest. Once the priest or key members leave this can have a devolving effect and loss of connection. A healthier local church model would engage individuals in a range of ministries and recognise them as critical members of the body of Christ. Their baptismal call maybe expressed and lived down through varied array of ministries through the local church. Thus, the lay member is just as important as a priest or clergy. Not one on top of the other within a hierarchy but mutually dependent. These ministries provide multiple points of belonging and meaning connected to the person of Christ. Today in Australia many local churches in the catholic tradition have not built up the culture of a shared sense of ministry. Whilst if you go to some protestant churches, shared ministries are expressed through all members of the community.
Does the Christian find meaning outside the church? For some Christians this may be when they leave home and go to university. Here they can be invited to join something new. Such as a new Christian group or what other association. Here a paradox emerges that may cause the individual to question their Christian identity. The largest group of people leave the church at this stage or point. Detachment from the family away from the local community and now a new found sense of meaning and Independence causes the individual to cut ties because they cannot come to terms with the paradox or different worldview. Questions like how can a conservative and progressive view fit together? How can my sexuality and its ethics fit into a conservative view of church doctrine? Right at this point, is the world which itself can help bridge and provide a greater sense the Meaning. The wider church operates in this domain. Official church teachings can provide meaning but at the same time there is deep wisdom in the wider Christian community which is often not be spoken about. Such as the role of the primacy of conscience when dealing with issues of sexuality. Or teaches such as Father Richard Rohr or Sister Joan Chittister who seek to present a teaching within paradox. The question does not become a black-and-white answer, but adjoining together within paradox. The world provides opportunities for a greater purpose such a serving the poor in another country, radically undertaking environmental stewardship, or by developing a sense of mission beyond the local community. But the Christian who does not seek to go out into the world closes in and this cannot last because the question and paradox remains. A conservative person might become defensive. A liberal progressive person might abandon all forms of tradition. But the answer does not fit into one perspective. The rational mind of a 7-year-old or a 12 -year-old cannot fit. Question such as “can you see in the Genesis story and the story of creation is mythology and not history and yet still fine deep meaning at the same time”? The Christian must be taken beyond their own reality and understanding and find a deeper sense of meaning in the world.
At the highest level is the “New World”. In St Paul’s time, he would stay with the communities a few months and then journey to the next community. Realise that this stage is built on the foundation of everything that has come before. As the individual is a part of the family, so as the family a part of the church, so as the church is a part of the world. A higher principled approach seeks to integrate all of this through the sense of the self, the need for dependences and conformity, the need for interdependence in the church, the question of paradox through the wider world, and a willingness to go beyond what seems natural. The New world is an approach which always seeks to evolve despite the obstacles which may block us engaging in the “New World”. The New Evangelisation is not new at all, but is expressed through a healthy and ongoing sense of conversion which seeks to move out to its edges to find meaning.
In conclusion, the question “why is the church devolving” is the wrong question if we are defined an answer. The question rather should be “how can the church evolve”? It needs to stop looking downward and it’s devolving nature, but look up at the stars like Abraham. To look beyond what it is and what it sees to the question of who it points towards. God. God who is infinite. God who once you have defined you already have lost the definition because there is another stage. This is not to get lost in an ascending Christology or focus on heavenly things. But rather be willing to face the deeper questions which are grounded in where we have come from as humans in all its parts. In that sense, we must evolve as a church and integrate all the parts of who we are becoming. The people of God “who go out to all creation and bring the Good News” which will require an 'evolution model'.