Noticings – November 22, 2023

“This is what we’re up against.”

A post in a ministers’ Facebook group has got me thinking. The post was about how we are living in a ‘Post-Christian’ world. It doesn’t mean that Christianity is over, but that Christianity in Canada has shifted from its position of ubiquitousness (mid-20th century) to one of so little prominence and cultural impact that (younger) generations of people have absolutely no clue what church is about, or what our once commonly held expectations and norms were. The egregious example offered in the post was that a minister at graveside was given a round of applause at the end because folks didn’t know how to respond. Commenters noted that funeral services for folks who spent decades giving faithfully of themselves and being immersed in church-life are increasingly held at funeral homes, often because the adult children planning them have no resonance with the church. And the idea of possibly singing hymns at a funeral is invariably met with a blank stare. Another commenter mentioned a toy store that had 50 different children’s Christmas books on display and not a single Christmas book mentioned the birth of Jesus.

Sadly, unless you’re an ‘insider’ of some sort, it seems the only impression that generations of people have about Christianity is what they see on TV, or hear on the news – neither of which generates much positive association for us. This is what we’re up against in this season of the Church. So many things that we hold dear seem irrelevant to people nowadays. We’re not even quaint – we don’t register at all. 

I suspect church-folks remember the joke about how many people were ‘C&E’ Christians – meaning that they only attended on Christmas and Easter. Now even the C&E folks are waning. Pre-Covid our Christmas Eve numbers were ok, but lower than in years past, and the days of setting up a hundred extra chairs for Easter are a distant memory. Post-Covid those trends have accelerated.

But perhaps this is a blessing in disguise. Christianity began as a quiet, subversive movement in often hostile contexts. It grew exponentially through interpersonal relationships, and the passion and conviction of people who had awoken to the presence of God (everywhere and always), and had become tuned-in to the teaching of Jesus (Love, Love, Love!). Christianity was a decidedly minority voice in the world for a long time. Then ‘the empire’ saw it as a means of unifying its territory and co-opted it. (Ask me some time what I think of Constantine!) That was 1700 years ago! Christianity has been compromised ever since, in my opinion. It has taken until this season for the Church to finally be relegated to a minority voice again. I actually think this fits Jesus better.

The challenge is that most of us who are in the church are steeped in memories of Christendom, where churches were full and ‘everyone’ was onboard, or at least knew about us. Living and loving as a marginalized entity is entirely new stuff for us. It requires very different approaches, and gifts, and visions. All of our assumptions about our place in the culture have crumbled. We have to approach every relationship and encounter with the expectation that the other has absolutely no idea who we are or what we’re about. It’s like we’re starting from scratch – just like the early church did.

The good news is that we have Good News to share! We have the same stuff that inspired those first disciples and motivated them to tell the world. And we have some similar obstacles, and some new ones. Our modern culture is both post-Christian and pre-Christian at the same time. As we approach Advent and Christmas perhaps remembering (and articulating) the ‘reason for the season’ is more important than it ever has been before – not angrily, or ‘scoldingly’, but lovingly. And perhaps our theme carol for this year needs to be “Go Tell It on the Mountain”! Go! Tell! (with love)