Why is it that the number of those involved in local churches in Ireland today is reducing so quickly?
For over a decade now, I have read articles and books on this subject and there seems to be widespread agreement around a twofold answer to the question. More times than not, the demise of the Irish church is blamed on changes in the culture around it, and a failure to live out what is preached within it. Our primary missiological difficulty, we are told, is that those around us are caving in to the materialism, secularism and self-interest of modern Irish life whilst those in the church are themselves failing to live up to the message they believe in.
But what if both of these answers are actually wrong?
Firstly, what if the problem with our churches is not ‘them’ at all, but lies primarily with ‘us’? What if the changes going on in our wider secular communities are not the real reason for the steady decline our churches are experiencing? What if the problem actually lies in what has been going on in our own spiritual communities?
Secondly, what if what the painful slide into church decline evidenced all around is not primarily caused by our failure to practice what we preach but, rather, the opposite? What if beneath the surface the reality of our situation is that we are indeed practicing what we preach, we are faithfully embodying the message that we believe?
Could it be that people are leaving the church because of what the church has become and because the gospel now being proclaimed and incarnated there is nothing but a shadow of the ‘euangelion’ first proclaimed by the Apostles? Could the woeful dichotomy that exists between the ancient teaching of Jesus and the modern reality of our Churches reveal not just a shift from pre-modern to post-modern in our culture, not just a rot in our praxis, as we have always thought, but also, and much more seriously, a terrible rot in the theology that lies at the centre of our proclamation? At the end of several hundred years of assumed faithfulness in kerugma and confidently expressed certainty in orthodoxy, is it possible that we could actually find ourselves in the situation where the gospel we have been and are proclaiming is not the gospel as Jesus taught it at all? Personally, I think it must.
Jesus says that “a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18) and His prognosis for the latter is somewhat worrying! If these words were true when he first spoke them, are they not just as true today? And could they not just as powerfully be confronting us as they once did the Pharisees? Could it be that it is us who are now the Pharisees, those who love the praise of men more than God, who have substituted relationship with God for knowledge about him, who are passionate about the keeping of the laws but who have failed to rightly offer and proclaim grace?
My answer to most of the above is, sadly, yes! Jesus clearly warned us to watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees. It is my growing conviction that those of us in the reformed churches, myself included, have woefully failed to heed Him. If we would see Ireland transformed once more by the gospel of Christ then we must first reclaim that gospel from the many influences that have diluted and altered it.
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