The Pope's claims of 'aggressive secularism' in the UK, got me thinking about the demands of time and participation our church makes upon people, and the complaint I've heard over the years about our community expecting too much time from people.
I know on the one hand I don't want a church life where everyone is in church meetings, but on the other, as a bunch of missional activists we do expect and we do ask a great deal of people. Our community is not a comfortable place to just hang out in, with no demands on your time, energy and money. (NOTICE: This post is not an argument or apologetic for church as sunday services and endless committee meetings. It's about the challenge of ordering life around faith with others in a liberal secular society).
As I began mulling that over, the main thing that strikes me with regards to time demands in a time poor society, is how we can give ourselves to almost anything, be that sport, music, motorbike riding (my current favourite hobby), any interest at great length and at great cost, with no question. But when it comes to church, somehow there is something almost obscene and abusive about the giving anywhere near the same commitment, or even the slightest commitments. So how did we get here, and what might be a way to respond?
One of the things that has happened is that church life not just been relativised, it has been demeaned, through a process over time, something like this (perhaps):
1. Enforced:Church life at one time was a question of Christendom, with political and cultural participation. By being English you were a Christian, and Christians fought to discover personal faith beyond and within cultural structures. Choosing the nature of your faith was unusual, and difficult.
2. Voluntarism: Then in the 19th century voluntarism explodes on the scene. With the emergence of nation states, capitalist markets, huge increases in income and leisure, the freedom to choose faith arose. And for many Christians the ability to choose faith, and it's shape and form was liberating. But by and large these formulations of faith, still ordered the rest of life and leisure.
3. Relativisation: But the freedom to choose soon becomes the freedom to choose anything other than participation in Christian community and mission. There is a direct correlation in the UK with increases in income, leisure and decline of church involvement (things get very different compared to the US with factors of lack of state church, welfare state and republican democracy) After the second world war churches watching the rapid decline in church involvement, decide to let their building to leisure activities, the reasoning being that it was better to have people come through their doors than not at all. So yoga, badminton, and karate become the main experience for people with a Church. This act can been seen as the final relatvisation of Church, and reduction of Church as one personal interest and hobby amongst all other leisure choices.
4. De-relativised: Then we arrive where things seem today. Church is not just one choice among many, it is a lesser choice. It's not even a valid hobby for people. To give time to church is to invite criticism in public by anyone who wants in ways that would never happen about other personal interests.
I see this with my teenage kids. Interactions with parents who aren't Christians and even those who are, that locate every sport, club, and interest of their children in supreme place in the ordering of their kids and their families lives. To not organise family around all these clubs and hobbies would be to deprive our kids, deny them basic human rights of self expression and be abusive. And Church, and christian formation, has to fit in around these other realities. After all what could be more damaging for our kids than to be involved in Church that might order the rest of their lives. Or God forbid exclude their participation in other interests.
As a parent in a secular post-christian world, I know the tension of not wanting to alienate my kids due to our families church life. I don't want them to feel our faith excludes them from life and interests with all their friends who aren't christians. But at the same time, I often grieve the pressure to organise their lives around any and everything other than our life as a christian family in a christian community. That I must concede to the logic of a secular liberal society that demands my families faith identity take second place to every other reality. So how might I respond to this?
Perhaps one way would to at least expect that our Christian commitments have the same status of any personal interest, hobby, club and society, and to have at least the same demands on our time as all the other things we organise our lives around. After all if faith is private just like all personal interests, who the heck is anyone to tell me and my kids what we give our time and interests too. That might be a place to start, and regain some confidence in our church life and mission.
And maybe we might even get to the place where our faith orders all our other commitments rather than fits around anything that is left over. And of course all this reveals that I think the giving of the best of who we are to our faith, first, best and not the last and for that to take place with others and order every other interest we have is what Christian community is about.
So do Christians spend too much time in Church? Well whose business is it if they do, and who is anyone to question what people give their interests to? Perhaps the problem is not that we give too much, but that we give to little. If my sons rugby club demands that, surely my faith must demand at least the same. My kids sports and performing arts, demand far more than their church discipleship.Traditioned activities, done with others, at great cost of time, energy and money, that requires the organising of other interests around them.
(ps. this post is a reworking of an older post from 2009)