At a pastors conference in Winnipeg, Man., on faith formation in a secular age, the keynote speaker, Andrew Root, asked a couple of gut-level questions:
— Why does faith formation seem so hard in this time and place?
— Why does it feel so hard to be a pastor in this time and place?
The answer to both, according to Root, is that in a relatively short period of time (historically speaking), faith in the West has been almost completely dislodged from the taken-for-granted substrate of almost everyone’s experiences and assumptions.
Now, where faith exists at all, it is mostly private, mostly practical, often individualistic, consumeristic and therapeutic.
Faith is far from the response to questions of life and death that it once was. It is now almost fully tailored to the needs of the self and its projects and ambitions.
This does make forming faith in people hard. It does make being a pastor hard.
The secular age is where we live and move and have our being:
— Churches are shrinking, obviously. And even those who are in church often treat it as one more thing to do with their discretionary time.
— Few people come to church agonizing over the state of their souls. We come to church looking for a bit of inspiration or therapy or distraction or connection with friends. We come because it’s one of the last places people sing or eat together. We come out of habit or duty or because we want to get out of the house for a few hours or because we like to feel “spiritual.”
— We may even come because we are curious about God, but of course we take what the preacher says with a grain of salt. We’re not idiots, after all! We are rational, modern, enlightened human beings.
I was speaking about some of these matters with my host at the bed and breakfast where I stayed during the conference. Once he heard about the topic, the floodgates opened.
He began to essentially narrate the view from the pews of the decline of the church in a secular age. He is part of a massive and influential church that had contributed to the founding of schools, parachurch ministries, programs and cultural events in the city, that now finds its pews emptier, its budgets smaller, its congregants older.
He spoke of Sunday school rooms that used to bustle with children’s activities and now served as storage space for donations for refugees. He recalled that the last time the choir sang Brahms’ Requiem for Easter there weren’t that many more people in the congregation than in the choir.
He lamented the absence of middle-aged and younger people in the work of the church. He wondered why it was the seniors who had to carry the load. How much longer can they do this? What will happen to the church when they can’t do it anymore? What will become of our institutions? How will faith be formed in our young?
The structures and institutions that formed many of us in the Christian faith don’t seem to be embraced by upcoming generations. The structures and institutions aren’t perfect, of course. And of course God can always do something new. But I don’t know what will happen if these die.
At the end of one of Root’s presentations, someone asked: Will it be up to the theologians and the poets to “re-enchant” the world in a secular age? Or is this a fool’s errand?
Root’s response wasn’t what I expected. He said something to the effect of, “Yeah, I think it probably is a fool’s errand. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. What else can we do? Isn’t the message and the way of the cross on some level always destined to be seen as foolishness?”
Near the end of my conversation with my bed and breakfast host, there was a long pause. Then he said, “Well, this year we have enough people to fill four rows of the choir loft to sing Brahms’ Requiem. And so we’ll sing.”
Yes. We should definitely sing. What else can we do? It might be a fool’s errand, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
Ryan Dueck is pastor of Lethbridge (Alta.) Mennonite Church. He writes at ryandueck.com.