Monday 25 July 2016
The demonic and the depressive (2 of 2)
I wouldn't say this particular church is the ugliest I've seen. Churches of a similar age in Melbourne, judging from a trip there several years ago, probably trump this particular structure decisively. These buildings reflect a colonial age in which Christian worship was a rather dour, serious activity. Hushed voices, patronising ten-minute homilies, often cheerless hymnody, no room for spontaneity. The architecture was designed to put you in your lowly place. You attended because it was expected. Good people went to church in the same way good businessmen belonged to service groups like the Lions Club or Rotary. Which denomination largely depended on your family background. Scottish? Tick Presbyterian. English? Tick Anglican. Irish? Tick Catholic.
But times have changed, and the preference these days is for the bubble-gum flavoured mush that the happy-clappy charismatic, prosperity-focused churches vomit forth. The traditional churches haven't kept up. Perhaps they shouldn't even try, but the sad truth is that they're now so out of step with the surrounding culture that their demographic is rapidly sliding into senescence.
On an optimism-pessimism continuum, traditional churches tend to teeter at the depressive "op shop" end. Not that I'm against op shops, they provide a valuable service, but this is often as far as social engagement goes in the historic denominations - at least on a parish/congregational level. When your community PR and profile is mainly associated with this kind of down-in-the-mouth venture, it isn't likely that you're going to attract or retain millennials. It's worthy. It's earnest. But worthy and earnest need to be balanced with something from the joyful end of the spectrum. It makes more sense to me (but what do I know?) to have many local churches vigorously supporting a single initiative alongside other non-religious charitable groups with minimal - or no - church branding.
This whole thing is summed up for me in the audience response to a lecture at Auckland University some time ago by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is both a New Testament scholar and Jewish. She constantly used humour in her presentation, and very effectively. The attendees were the local Christian theological set. What amazed me was how the humour completely went over the heads of at least half the listeners. I was sitting a couple of seats along from a couple of what seemed to be young religious professionals. They seemed genuinely immune. Certainly they were unappreciative - not even a smile, perhaps they were just puzzled. It was a hard room to play to. The thought that these blokes were going forth into pulpits the following Sunday was genuinely worrying. It still is.