Let’s start with the latter. Church-going in the West by percentage of population is a minority sport, one could say – except that by comparison it isn’t. Attendance at weekly worship is regularly in excess of attendance of Saturday football matches. The two groups are, of course, not mutually exclusive, but we’ll consider this in the light of what I shall write later. However, this comparison does put into context church attendance figures as not being too bad. If church exceeds what is viewed in the UK as being a popular activity then we have to question what we are ‘expecting’ the results to be.
There is a lot of history here. John Bunyan’s autobiographical ‘Life and Death of Mr. Badman’ and John Wesley’s ‘The Almost Christian’ remind us that in the English-speaking evangelical tradition the standards for commitment are set at a high level. Yet both of these are coming from a historical situation where not attending church would incur a monetary fine and where, in Bunyan’s day, non-conformist preaching led to imprisonment, including his own!
In a society where freedom of religion is recognised and religious belief technically protected from discrimination, perhaps we should see a decline in church attendance. If a thing is not personally costly it is easy to see it as having no value. And as G. K. Chesterton is paraphrased as saying ‘When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything’. Certainly banality in belief seems to be on the increase, but determining how you would statistically test this assertion would be a challenge.
So then, do those who remain attending church constitute a committed remnant? A Calvinist elect or Kierkegaard’s Knights of Christ?
In the study of statistics, minorities are interesting. What causes them? Are they the extremes (outliers) from the norm? If they are the anomalies that you get within any population, for example those who are unusually tall or exceptionally fast runners, you can ask: what exactly are the characteristics they posses? What causes them? For the unusually tall the thing you are measuring is objective and simple, but it does have multiple contributing causes, such as genetic inheritance and childhood nutrition. With a fast runner, current influences such as training regimes and even technology can be a factor. Statistically you can attempt to measure the degree of likelihood that something has a cause or link, but you can never be certain.
Randomness is used to cover the inevitable inaccuracy, either of your measuring instruments or the fact that it is generally pretty much impossible to have all of the data (so you never know if you have the complete picture). Some statistical models will allow you to make a guess of the degree of influence that something has. But again, because of shortcomings in data or measurements, there will always be a gap between what is observed and what the model predicts. ‘Only the angels know everything‘ says Aquinas, and a good statistician knows this only too well. Human knowledge is limited, not only because the sheer volume of data that constructs our universe is far beyond our three-score-years-and-ten comprehension, but also because we cannot count how many angels dance on the proverbial pin head.
Statisticians use randomness to fill the gaps of what they cannot explain, knowing that something is always out there that does not fit the predictions.
Perhaps we of faith need be reminded to have the same humility before the mystery of God and Creation, rather than make so many pronouncements from an ill-founded certainty. What stirs the human heart to faith is mysterious and inexplicable. John Wesley and Billy Graham may have been very effective in particular contexts and at particular times, but their methods did not work on even the majority of the population, let alone a specific soul drawn at random. Jesus himself in the parable of the sower uses an image of wheat seeds falling at random on hospitable and inhospitable ground as a metaphor for the acceptance of the word of God. Has then God (randomly) predetermined an elect? A mischievous suggestion but, like I say, randomness (or why someone appears to be chosen while another does not) is a cover for not being able to perceive everything at once.
The statistical idea of randomness, I think, has another thing to teach us. Randomness will generally cause things to group around a central middle value. Anyone who bets on rolling two dice should know that score of seven will appear more times than two or twelve, this is because there are more ways of making seven than two or twelve. The more times you do this, and the more dice you add, the truer this statement becomes. To go back to an earlier point, this is also true of tall people and those that run fast. Most of us are grouped closely in a central band. As you move away from this central point the quantity of people who are taller or faster runners decreases more and more. The factors that determine our height or how fast we run pull us together into a central point rather than push us out to the extreme.
Church attendance is an unusual activity, but here we are using it as an indicator of something even more ephemeral: spiritual devotion. I agree with Bunyan and Wesley that the two are not synonymous and I agree with Jesus and the Prophets that what God seeks is worship in Spirit and in Truth.
I would also say that frequent acts of spiritual devotion are rare rather than common. To say this I am not pretending to be able to see into the hearts of
men people, rather using my personal experience and that which has been historically reported by sources I trust. If spiritual devotion is rare, a statistical outlier, it perhaps confirms the writings of the many divines from the epistles, through the desert fathers, through medieval monks and nuns, through to puritan writers and further through to more modern writers like C.S. Lewis: spiritual devotion is difficult and the distractions are many. We are all being pulled towards a relatively inactive centre.
Based on the above, let me humbly suggest something: if we are truly to advance the kingdom of God then we should perhaps devote our time and efforts not in trying to find those highly unusual souls capable of maintaining a high degree of spiritual activity – I dare say they have found their place already, as the groaning of their souls beyond words is so deafening to their inner life they can do nothing else but tend to it – we should work to build up the ordinary souls so that they can become more extraordinary, helping them make the small steps towards a deep faith, not presenting them with an expectation of what they should be, with no clue how to get there.
What we have found when we have crunched the numbers for church attendance is that what is most effective is not finding new souls, but keeping those we have. Let us never deny the gospel to anyone, but in our enthusiasm to tell all the Good News, let us make sure we feed the sheep that are already in the fold, and make sure that they are not joining the number that have strayed.
Written by Frank