Are Christendom’s Churches Losing Their Grip?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Brazil
A CLOSE look at the churches of Christendom reveals a crumbling empire. Centuries ago a powerful Church dominated much of the world. Her emperors and kings ruled by “divine right.” Then came the Reformation and there was a split in power. After the Thirty Years’ War the peace treaty of Westphalia, in 1648, curtailed the Catholic Church’s influence. Protestant powers gained strength. The French Revolution ushered in an era of reaction against Church rule. Before long, liberal movements sprang up on every side. In quick succession came the industrial revolution, the evolution theory, higher criticism, modernism and materialism.
World War I struck the world like a lightning bolt. The Orthodox Church in Russia crumbled under the onslaught of Bolshevism. Communism lapped up other countries, determined to eliminate religion, which it called “the opium of the people.” In view of all of this, Pope John Paul II recently raised these questions: “What is the destiny Our Lord has in store for his Church in the coming years? What direction will Mankind take while nearing the year 2000? These are burning questions and the only answer is: ‘God knows.’”
God knows. That is true. A look at different churches in different parts of the world will be interesting and perhaps revealing.
Presbyterian clergyman James Ukaigbu bemoaned the fact that “today the church seems to have lost its sense of identity like someone suffering from amnesia and is asking who am I and what am I here for?”
The New Nigerian said: “Many religious dignitaries have not set any high standard of morality for their followers but they will expect the members to set it.”
However, religion in Nigeria, whether Moslem, Christian or tribal, is still widely practiced. But as a moral or educational force the churches are losing influence. Crime and immorality are on the increase. During the civil war the churches took sides, and after the war the missionary-run schools were taken over by the government. Additionally, materialistic and evolutionary teaching in high schools and universities has produced a far less religious generation.
Dr. Jan Karel Coetzee, lecturer at the University of Pretoria, took a survey among members of the Dutch Reformed Church. Of those questioned, 28 percent did not believe that man inherited sin, 19 percent doubted the creation account, and 23.8 percent doubted the account of Adam and Eve. Nearly 70 percent believed that salvation can be achieved without Christ Jesus.
Hong Kong’s Asiaweek magazine reflected the Oriental’s thinking when it stated: “Right-wing Western prelates have blessed the bombs of the Establishment. Long-haired Fathers in Latin America have hurled [bombs] of the Left. . . . Its wealth can be the Roman church’s most damaging advertisement. . . . In 100 slums, the ornate cathedrals erected to its God loom over the palpable miseries of man. . . . In the histories of many nations, the Catholic church has been a force of feudal conservatism, often sacrificing the potential for comfort in this life for docile ignorance that sent souls to happiness in the next. Churches burned with many a dictator’s palace.”
Aoyama Gakuin University, founded by Methodist missionaries in Tokyo, decided to abolish its theology course in 1973 because of a decline in applicants and a deficit in its operation. A significant sidelight in the Orient is the fact that Buddhism is going through the same corroding forces as the Western churches.
In this continent and country of some 13.5 million inhabitants, the Roman Catholic Church has 2,000 fewer nuns and 400 fewer “religious brothers” and priests than it had in 1966.
A report from Melbourne shows that Protestants are not doing any better: “One in five of Australia’s Protestant clergy doubts the existence of God and heaven, an official church survey has indicated. The survey found that a third of Protestant churchgoers have doubts about God.”
In July 1978 the archbishop of Canterbury told four hundred bishops at the Lambeth conference: “God forgive us. We would not admit it; it would shock our congregations if we did. But we have stopped listening and our spiritual life has died on us, though we keep up appearances and go through the motions.” The number of ministers is declining.
A correspondent of The Times said that “all the mainstream churches are plagued by falling numbers and severe financial difficulties, but they are most worried by the increasingly wide gap that seems to have opened between institutional religion and the younger generation.”
Monsignor Gabriel Matagrin, bishop of Grenoble, is quoted, in Alain Woodrow’s book L’Eglise déchirée (The Split Church, 1978), as saying: “It is undeniable that the Church is going through a crisis. Religious practice is on the decrease, there is a fall in those baptized and catechized, and there are less and less priests and religious vocations.”
In a Lenten sermon at Notre Dame, priest Bernard Bro said: “Specialists estimate that practicing Catholics will decrease from 16% to 7% [in France]. For my part, I retain the example given by the Northern countries which taught me that we could very well descend to 1%. In thirty years it will all be over.”
The Süddeutsche Zeitung, in reporting on debates at a Catholic conference, stated: “The Church and its institutions appear alien to the hopes of modern man and always behind the times. It makes the impression of not understanding what people want and what their true needs are.”
A shattering testimony to the churches’ losing ground in Germany was a poll reported in the magazine Bunte: “Only 17% of Germans under 35 believe that God exists.”
Until recently the Greek Orthodox Church has been all-powerful. Now her dealings and objectives are coming under direct fire. Commented the Athens daily To Vima: “Today the Church, that is the clergy, especially the highest clergy, is very often a den of scandal, a source of foolishness and nonsense. So much so, that for some time now, the great majority of the Greek people looks on most clergymen, not as a respectable, spiritual institution, but as a swarm of agitators and scandalmakers, radicals and exploiters, who rather than ‘guide their flock,’ amuse it with their prattle and deliria, when the flock is not disgusted by their feats.”
Across the Bosporus from Greece, in ancient Constantinople, resides the “Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of the ‘New Rome.’” Demetrios I is the symbolic leader of the world’s 85 million Orthodox members. Said Time magazine: “Yet when His Holiness Demetrios I presides over the Sunday Eucharist at the Church of St. George in Istanbul, the giant chandeliers cast their feeble light across ranks of empty pews. The congregation numbers only a dozen worshipers, most of them elderly. The historic see, once the center of half the Christian world, is dying.”
In an open letter to Pope Paul VI, Archbishop Pintonello said: “The seminaries and the Pontifical Atheneums, as everybody knows, have changed into schools, and from there to marxism and atheism, already having infected more than 90% of the young clergy.” La Difesa del Popolo said concerning priests: “In 1871 there were in Italy 152,000, . . . in 1973 there were 47,000. It should be noted that in the meantime the Italian population had gone up from 27 million to 54 million inhabitants.”
In 1977 the magazine Opção stated: “The situation is such that some priests feel they are the survivors of a species on its way to extinction. A great number of these simply celebrate mass on Sunday and during the week go to university or have regular jobs. They fear that from one minute to the next they may be obligated to find a new way of life.”
On Easter Sunday, 1978, the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon complained of the sins of Portuguese society, but Opção charged that the Catholic Church was not innocent politically and was responsible for the growth of these sins during the dark reign of dictator Salazar.
There have been radical changes in religious traditions. A few years ago, Holy Week was a religious celebration staunchly supported by the masses. Now it is a signal for a mass exodus from the cities to the countryside and to the mountains. Also in Spain many seminaries are down to a handful of theology students. The situation is worsened by the number of those leaving the priesthood and the convents.
The church in Sweden does not have much influence in people’s lives. On the average, the Swede visits a church less than three times a year. A commentator said: “It seems that the Swede, after all, is satisfied with his church and is willing to pay what it costs to retain it, although he does not attend it.”
In a cover story, Time magazine reported that, “nationally, the Episcopal Church has lost a member every 15 minutes over the past decade.” A schism arose in that church over having women priests. In January 1978 four new bishops were consecrated for the new “Anglican Church of North America.” One of them said that remaining in the Episcopal Church “is like giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a corpse.”
Rabbi Alvin J. Reines has claimed that “American Jewry is in a desperate state of crisis.” According to Time, he “is convinced that by the year 2100 the American Jewish community could dwindle from today’s 5.8 million to fewer than 1 million—below the point of significance.” Reines is said to argue that “American Jews simply do not accept the teachings of traditional Judaism. And without some religion, Jewry will vanish.”
Evangelism seems to be flourishing, as the more staid religions fail to satisfy. However, Human Behavior magazine reports that all may not be what it seems at the famous Billy Graham crusades. The claim is made that many among the throngs who come forth for the usual “altar calls” are planted ahead of time “to create the impression of a spontaneous mass outpouring.”
A recent Gallup Youth Survey revealed that only 25 percent of the youths polled expressed high confidence in organized religion. Numerous comments were: “Bingo, bazaars, and bad sermons—that’s what church is all about,” and churchgoers “are spiritually shallow.” Many commented on the hypocrisy of churches and churchgoers and the fact that churches do not teach about God or the Bible.
Unheard of in the past, now “Brazil has sharply curtailed the immigration of foreign missionaries, both Roman Catholic and Protestant.” (Arkansas Gazette) But does Brazil produce the priests it needs? The percentage of population increase is much greater than the percentage of increase of priests. Actually, O Estado de S. Paulo said that “from 1968 on, the number of the religious clergy began to decline slowly.”
Dying influence of Catholicism is also noticeable in attitudes toward life. A University of São Paulo team found that one woman in two uses some form of contraception, and that in spite of Church orders. A Brazil Herald headline draws this revealing conclusion: “The Church in Brazil: The light that failed.”
Maybe your church is not having the problems typical of Christendom’s churches in general. Maybe it is prospering, with good attendance and a minister you enjoy listening to and working with. Still, there can be a difference between thinking we are right and being right, and even true Christians are admonished to “keep testing whether you are in the faith, keep proving what you yourselves are.”—2 Cor. 13:5.
When Jesus was on earth he showed that the Jewish religions of that day were not serving God, and some of the early Christian congregations also failed to pass some of the tests. Here are some of the tests that those worshipers of God failed, and that both individuals and churches still fail today. As we examine this partial listing, let each of us examine ourselves and the congregations we are affiliated with.
[Blurb on page 18]
“Some priests feel they are the survivors of a species on its way to extinction”
[Blurb on page 18]
“Remaining in the Episcopal Church is like giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a corpse”
[Blurb on page 19]
“The Church in Brazil: The light that failed”
[Box on page 20]
WHAT ABOUT YOUR CHURCH?
Religious traditions or accurate knowledge?
Doers of God’s word, or lip service, or for show?
“Become doers of the word, and not hearers only.” “Faith without works is dead.” “Not everyone saying to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the one doing the will of my Father.”—Jas. 1:22; 2:26; Matt. 7:21.
“They like the most prominent place . . . and to be called Rabbi by men. But you, do not you be called Rabbi . . . all you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One.”—Matt. 23:6-9.
“Brothers, I was not able to speak to you as to spiritual men. . . . There are jealousy and strife among you.” “The fruitage of the spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, mildness, self-control.”—1 Cor. 3:1-3; Gal. 5:22, 23.
Public praisers of God and Christ?
“Offer to God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips which make public declaration to his name.” “Make disciples of people of all the nations.” “You will be witnesses of me [Jesus Christ] . . . to the most distant part of the earth.”—Heb. 13:15; Matt. 28:19; Acts 1:8.
“This is what the love of God means, that we observe his commandments.”—1 John 5:3.
Believe in God?
“The senseless one has said in his heart: ‘There is no Jehovah.’”—Ps. 14:1.
Christ the ransom?
“There is no salvation in anyone else [Christ].”—Acts 4:12.
Love among yourselves?
“By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.”—John 13:35.
Love of the world?
“Do you not know that the friendship with the world is enmity with God?” “Do not be loving either the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him; because everything in the world—the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the showy display of one’s means of life—does not originate with the Father, but originates with the world. Furthermore, the world is passing away and so is its desire, but he that does the will of God remains forever.”—Jas. 4:4; 1 John 2:15-17.