John Derbyshire wrote a fairly depressing essay about the decline in membership within the Catholic church during the tenure of Pope John Paul II. Whereas others will blame Vatican II or traditionalist policies, Mr. Derbyshire blames the "irresistible appeal of secular hedonism to healthy, busy, well-educated populations."
I think he is on to something. However, I hope to show that there is more going on here that explains not just church membership decline, but church growth as well. Since I'm not Catholic, I will to what I've seen in Baptist circles and extrapolate to the Roman church.
Mr. Derbyshire rightly points out that people in America and Western Europe live comfortable, affluent lives. The gospel promise of a better world strains the imagination. Jesus spoke of the difficulty of getting a camel through the eye of a needle afterall. But the Brave New World is not Heaven and people feel something is missing despite all this affluence.
If I tell my neighbor that there's a heaven and a hell after this life and a God who judges us, then he will just be unable to engage those thoughts.
I believe the gospel needs to be translated into different terms. I'm not talking about tickling ears. We are alienated from God and death is separation from God and reconciliation and resurrection are found only in Christ. If you believe this is true, then this should be your message to your neighbors.
Many in Western Society see a tedious round of consumption and entertainment that doesn't really mean anything. Sure getting a high score on your X-Box is nice and getting a better plasma screen TV and upgrading your sofa to leather is nice, but so what. We're going thru the motions and why are we doing it why? "Why am I here?" is a question that's deeper than "Who am I?" or "What do I want?"
These questions, so hard for contemporary society cannot be answered from a man-centric framework. Christianity looks outside mankind for an external point of reference in the ultimate source of reality. The trouble is that we're alienated from that reference-point.
Alienation characterizes much of Western Society and people feel that alienation. We also see alienation in our relationships with other people. There's a lot of psychobabble out there and Christianity is not a form of psychotherapy. But Christianity tells us how to live, both individually and in relationship with other people. Church is a community of faith.
We have a cure to alienation that our neighbors ache for, even if they have a paid-off mortgage. My church stresses purpose, relationship and community. It's growing quickly.
Conversely, other churches see shrinking membership rolls and empty parking lots. These other churches aren't evil or lazy, but the shrinking membership makes them act crazy. Fervor, zeal without knowledge, does not suffice. Sincerity, misdirected, doesn't cut it. God expects us to use what he gives us. He gives us brains to figure this stuff out. He gives us the Great Commission and expects us to win folks to him. We don't do this if we don't understand what our neighbors feel.