On May 11th, 1959, C.S. Lewis addressed the students of Westcott House, the Anglican theology school at Cambridge. They no doubt found his message to be peculiar. It was, after all the message of a Christian who believed that his religion was actually true delivered to young men being trained in the heresy of Theological Liberalism—the hallmark of which is a belief that Jesus Christ, his work, and his teachings are primarily an inspiring fairy tale. Lewis’ arguments against higher criticism in “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” both were and are worthy of our attention. Today, however, it is the end of the speech that I’d like to highlight:
Such are the reactions of one bleating layman to Modern Theology. It is right you should hear them. You will not perhaps hear them very often again. Your parishioners will not often speak to you quite frankly. Once the layman was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the Vicar; he now tends to hide the fact that he believes so much more. Missionary to the priests of one’s own church is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling that if such mission work is not soon undertaken the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short.
The quote came to mind as I read an article from the Telegraph indicating that this ‘future history’ is now. According to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church of England is one generation away from extinction. Why? After all, “it is still the case that people are essentially looking for spiritual fulfillment.”
“So many churches have no ministry to young people and that means they have no interest in the future.”
“So many people do not see the average church as a place where great things happen. To sit in a cold church looking at the back of other peoples’ heads is surely not the best place to meet exciting people and to hear prophetic words.”
So the problem is that church is too cold, too boring, has poor seating, and does too little to pamper the youth. His diagnosis does make the cause of death very clear, though not in the way one would ordinarily expect from a diagnosis. It is like watching an oncologist explain that his patient is dying because his regimen of acupuncture is too lax. One can see exactly why the cancer was never treated even if the doctor cannot. While I cannot help but agree with him that “more gimmicks” are not the answer and that “We have to give cogent reasons to young people why the Christian faith is relevant to them,” it is quite clear that the real problem has sailed over his head. Being as exclusively tied to modernist culture as it is, everything Theological Liberalism has come up with in its roughly two centuries of existence has been a gimmick. Every cogent reason why the Christian faith is relevant to anyone was dismissed as foolishness that no enlightened modern person could possibly believe. But sure… the problem is that they have not made church appealing enough to the youth.
Meanwhile in America, where youth ministries abound, we are beginning to find that they are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Oddly enough, it turns out that cutting off children from the rest of the body of Christ so that they can be raised in the faith by professional youth workers in a program based on community and entertainment is not terribly effective when you live in a culture that offers better entertainment than one could ever find in a church and forcibly breaks up youth communities when half of them are sent off to college.
But there is one religion that is doing quite well among the youth of England: Islam. British Muslims are expected to outnumber practicing British Christians in the next decade or so. It is not because they have gone out of their way to cater to the whims of youth; it is precisely the opposite. Rather than segregating their young in some kind of children’s mosque, they raise them up as part of the same community as the adults by teaching their youth how they are supposed to behave and believe with respect to Islam and expecting them to actually do it. Say what you will about Muslims, at least they take their religion seriously and expect their youth to do the same. It is hard to do that when a church is beholden to outdated academic traditions that insist that Christ’s teachings be treated with an unwarranted skepticism. It is hard to do that when a church is so desperate for numbers that it is transformed into a place for social clubs and amusements to bring in the crowds.
Though the details differ, the root problem is the same on both sides of the Atlantic. The life of the Church is found in Christ, and he has directed us to find him in his Word and Sacraments. His gifts are the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. We know that these things are relevant to youth and adult alike because we have good reason to believe that our religion is actually true. Christ really is who he said he is and did what he said he did, and unlike Muslims, we have a record of these things that stands up to historical scrutiny. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain… If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” When we think that God is found primarily in our experiences, our political activism, our worldly success, our excitements, or anything other than where God has promised to be, we make the Church obsolete. Once we do that, how can we blame anyone for leaving her?
It is better that the false churches fall away lest they continue to be confused with the true ones. I mourn the Church of England’s apostasy, but not its death.