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12 August 2014

Six challenges for the Church when engaging with contemporary culture

Six challenges for the Church when engaging with contemporary culture

by Karl Faase

In 2011 Olive Tree Media set out to produce a television/DVD series in response to the rise of the new atheists movement. As part of the background preparation for the Towards Belief series, the team asked McCrindle Research in Australia to research what Australians thought of Christian faith and the Church. This research has revealed several interesting insights for Christians and church leaders in Western cultures. Here is a summary of the six key insights from this work:

1) It may not be as bad as you think

While the research demonstrated there are challenges the Church faces, the situation may not be as gloomy as it first seems. Our research revealed that 49 per cent of respondents were open to consider changing their views on religion, 46 per cent were open to having religious conversations and 25 per cent of those who did not believe were actually warm towards faith. This last statistic is interesting to consider. The researchers asked a set of questions which determined where a respondent would sit on a modified Engel Scale of Belief. This ranged from -7, reflecting militant anti-faith or atheist, up to zero which indicates Christian commitment. Those who indicated a -3 to -1 on the scale demonstrated that they were warm towards faith, although not Christian or attending Church. Twenty five per cent of respondents fell into this category.

2) The Church is part of the problem

The research showed that while the intellectual challenges to faith are still evident, it also confirms what many have suspected;that the Church itself is a large part of the problem. Issues include the Church being seen as an obsolete institution, hypocrisy, especially demonstrated in cases of abuse, and the vexed issue of homosexuality. These are as much stumbling blocks to belief and faith as any intellectual discussion.

3) Intellectual issues are becoming more significant

From the mid 1970s the post-modern mindset became popular in Western nations - the assertion that truth can't be known or understood. This has led to an interest in eastern religions where religious faith is not so much concerned with questions of truth but rather lifestyle and mystical experiences. While there are still many who hold this worldview, there is a definite shift back to what would be described as modernity or the search for truth. This goes part way to explaining the interest in the new atheists. In this environment having responses to questions such as: can you believe the Bible, what about suffering, how can someone rise from the dead and what about all the world religions, is important.

4) It's not just about questions of belief

Clotaire Rapaillehas written a very insightful book called Culture Codes. He has spent the last couple of decades trying to understand different cultures around the world working for large multi-national corporations. One of his key insights is: "If you want to know what people think, don't listen to a word they say." His point is that when people are surveyed they tend to answer what they think are the right or expected answers, not what they really feel. For many people, when it comes to matters of faith or the Church, speak of belief blockers and intellectual issues but in reality it's just that they don't care or are too busy to consider faith.

5) Perceived hypocrisy is significant

The research revealed that two of the highest rating blockers were hypocrisy and church abuse. We are convinced that these issues are strongly linked and point to the issue of authenticity of the Church. If the Church takes a strong line on issues of morality but then fails to live this out or more importantly hold leaders to account for their failure to live up these standards, then the Church is attacked and dismissed. The community does have a level of tolerance for individuals within an organisation who have failed. That is true across many sectors whether in law enforcement, politics or the entertainment industry. What our community has little tolerance for is when organisations fail to act responsibly when these failures are brought to light.

6) Don't aim to be popular

In the face of opposition and marginalisation of the Church, there is an overwhelming desire to be popular, to navigate back into a positive light in the community. While it's good to connect with our communities, especially in service and demonstrating care, there is a danger in just trying to be popular. Doug Douthat reflects on the American church in his book Bad Religion. He reviews the decline of the Church in the US, post the 1960s cultural revolution, and looks at the response various churches have made. One reaction of a couple of denominations was that of accommodation - to give in to cultural change and fit the values of the community. While this seems like an eminently suitable response and one that would bring positive growth, the result was the opposite. Denominations that took the accommodation approach such as United Methodists or Episcopalian Churches suffered from prodigious decline. Aiming to be popular is not the answer.

These insights demonstrate that while the situation is not easy it may not be as bad as many believe. There is enough good news here to give us heart but enough challenges to keep us from complacency or triumphalism.

Karl Faase is CEO of Olive Tree Media and creator and host of the Towards Belief DVD/TV Series.

Towards Belief is a DVD featuring more than 30 leading thinkers as they seek to defuse the belief blockers to Christian faith in the western world. Contributors include John Lennox, Michael Ramsden, Amy Orr-Ewing, Nicky Gumbel and many more. The Evangelical Alliance is supporting an event, hosted by Karl, launching the Towards Belief series in the UK at the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity on 25 September.