Alan Jacobs quotes a C.S. Lewis piece from 1946, in which Lewis said that the visible de-Christianization of Britain was only an outward sign of something that had happened long before. Lewis wrote:
One way of putting the truth would be that the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague Theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the ‘World’, was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded church-going as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners as (at worst) a proof of respectability. Hence a social pressure, like the withdrawal of the compulsion, did not create a new situation. The new freedom first allowed accurate observations to be made. When no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered.
To this, Jacobs adds:
That’s what we are discovering. The question is whether American churches will have the intellectual and spiritual integrity necessary to recognize and accept how completely they have relied on the social appeal of a “vague Theism” and how little they have spoken to those who go to church because they seek Christ. What’s at stake here is merely life or death.
This put me in mind of the conversations I’ve had with more than a few pastors in my travels talking about The Benedict Option. They tell me, in one way or another, what you say is true but my congregation is blind to what’s happening all around us, and I cannot get them to see it.
A friend writes this evening (slightly edited for privacy):
You were in NYC when the Twin Towers came down, of course, but I was halfway across the country, in my office, and everyone was buzzing around and I was saying “Oh come on, it can’t be that big a deal, I’m sure the reports are hysterical” … looking back, I can see how desperately I was denying reality. Same with the people who think that the place of Christianity in the West is just fine.
At my church, the people are orthodox, evangelical in orientation, but if you told them that they needed to do anything significantly different than what they’re doing I’m sure that they’d get out. So pastors just try to keep people around, try to keep them in hearing distance of the Gospel. Every orthodox Protestant pastor I know thinks that way: How can I keep people from bailing out altogether?
I expect that this view is not limited to orthodox Protestant pastors. But I don’t know that. I want to invite the comments of all Christian pastors — Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox — who, whether or not they align themselves with the Benedict Option, nevertheless share my view that the situation with Christianity in the West is much more dire than most Christians believe. Do you tell your congregation the truth? If not, why not? Are you afraid people will bail out? How do you balance concern for the nominal with the needs for discipleship of those who are committed? Are you confident that you are providing the people in your congregation with the tools they will need to remain faithful in the years to come? Why or why not?
Where do you think your congregation will be in 20 years? How about the American church? What, aside from a miracle, might turn things around?
I only want to hear from those in ordained ministry. Don’t feel obliged to use your real name, of course, but unless there’s a good reason not to, please indicate the church or denomination in which you serve. Do you perceive a sense of crisis among the clergy in your denomination, or is the atmosphere one of complacency?
Open thread. Again, readers, please give the floor to priests and pastors — and, for that matter, for rabbis and imams who might be reading, and who have something to say from their own congregational experience. I am unlikely to post comments from the laity, because I want to amplify the voices of those in ministry.
UPDATE: A couple more questions, suggested by the comments received already: If you think that your church is serious, demanding, orthodox, etc., what does that consist in? What marks your church as different and better?
And, please readers: I am posting some comments from non-pastors, but I wish you wouldn’t submit them. I want to hear from those who are in the trenches as priests, pastors, and religious leaders.