I rather like this letter to The Times from the vice-president of the National Secular Society in the UK following recent debate about the continuing decline in anglican church attendance.
Sir, Your correspondents… seem to labour under the impression that, if they get the formula right, the outward surge of people from the churches will be somehow reversed. Many conservatives argue that these deserters would respond better if there were a stronger moral steer (or, more plainly, more authoritarianism) while liberals demand more inclusivity (that is, a rewriting of the Bible). Some think that it is because the services are dry and boring and could be made more interesting with various additions, while others assert that the theatricality of the traditional smells and bells approach is what the punters are really after.
None has considered the most likely explanation for their empty churches: that people don’t believe it any more. And no amount of tinkering round the edges is going to tempt them back. Once the genie of unbelief is out of the bottle, it won’t be forced in again.
He’s not entirely correct as is evident from the large number of people who are leaving churches but retaining a strong and developing faith. Emergent-UK had a very stimulating gathering today with Alan Jamieson, author of A Churchless Faith (see the review on this site). Alan’s work suggests not only that there may be a significant ‘submerged’ church that needs to be taken into consideration but also that networks of invisible believers may eventually provide the matrix for a renewal of corporate Christian life in post-Christian societies.
Nevertheless, I think the vice-president of the National Secular Society has a point: the church has a fundamental credibility problem and we have to face up to that fact. So what can we do to get the genie back in the bottle?