Talk Three: Continuing without God
When I first entered the Church’s ministry, the Church had the reputation for often being cold and unfriendly; unwelcoming to newcomers. I am pleased to say that this has changed. Go to most Churches on a Sunday and the problem won’t be a lack of welcome. If anything, you are more likely to be put off by the enthusiasm of the welcome you receive! There is nothing insincere about this. Churches genuinely want to welcome people and make them feel comfortable. The cynic might say that this is because congregation numbers are falling and so churches are grateful for anyone who wants to join.
While there might be an element of this in some cases, I think the motives are sincere enough, and most Christians believe that welcoming people is more than about increasing numbers. The realisation that it is important to welcome people has gone alongside an increasing emphasis in the Church’s message on inclusivity. If you go to Church on a Sunday, as well as receiving a welcome, you are likely to hear a message that stresses how Jesus reached out to all members of society; that he included all in his welcome whether they were rich or poor, high or lowly. The Church, you will hear, welcomes people regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, colour, social background, or sexuality - without distinction.
And again, this is sincerely meant. The Church may not always live up to its ideal, but there is on the whole a real desire to do so, and most Churches would be very upset if they felt that they had failed to do so. Nor is inclusivity limited to the initial welcome. The Church has sought to reinvent itself theologically to meet the challenges of a secular society that has little time for God. In addition to being inclusive in its welcome, it seeks to stress forgiveness, tolerance, understanding, open-mindedness, and social justice. In any Church, you are as likely to find activities the purpose of which is to work for a fairer society as you are those to bring people to faith in God.
Wrong, that is, if the aim is a faithful presentation of the message of Jesus Christ. The 21st Century Gospel certainly includes bits of Jesus’ teaching in it, but it is highly selective in which bits it includes. So, for example, parables such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are popular. And passages in which Jesus eats and drinks with sinners are freely quoted. As are any in which Jesus shows a positive attitude to women and those discriminated against in the society of his day.
Parables, however, such as those in which the King comes and murders those who refused to welcome his son or where the people are thrown into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth are not very popular. And passages where Jesus speaks of judgement and the punishment in hell of those who refuse to accept his message are rarely quoted. Nor are any where Jesus himself seems to discriminate. There was, after all, very little gender balance in his choice of the twelve apostles.
In the previous two talks at this time, I have spoken of how people in our society have very little interest in God. Many Christians seem to think that the best way to reach people in our society is by having very little interest in him ourselves. Far better to come up with a message that addresses the concerns of the day and is in harmony with the political agenda of our time. I am not questioning people’s sincerity, nor arguing for a return to the past – there were many failings, who could deny it? But in seeking to welcome people, we need to have something to welcome them to. And people are unlikely to be attracted to a watered-down version of something that they can get elsewhere.
It is time to bring back God.