On Facebook, I had my attention drawn to an interesting article by Margaret Wente about the decline of the liberal church, focusing on the United Church of Canada. It is an interesting article, but it deserves to be read carefully, since it acknowledges that pretty much the only churches not in decline are connected with immigrant communities for whom religion and cultural identity (and the preservation thereof) are closely connected. And so its real point is very much like that of the recent Ross Douthat article that generated so much discussion (and to which I wrote a response). It is not about liberal churches per se, but about churches, and the fact that the jettisoning of tradition – whether traditional music or traditional doctrine – has not led to this generation becoming members or actively participating.
So the real question, in light of that, is what the church should be doing if it thinks it should have a future. If neither being conservative nor being liberal makes a difference, then churches should presumably be true to their convictions – but if they are worth having around, then clearly it may have to be for something other than has traditionally been the case. Getting together to sing and listen to a long sermon has never been the attraction. People did that (perhaps put up with that) because the church was the hub of communities. And it still is for immigrants and subcultures, but not for mainstream society in its latest generations. We are finding community, connecting with people with whom we share interests or whose differences challenge us, via blogs and Facebook and other online venues.
And so is there any way that churches – including liberal churches – can serve as hubs for communities? Do we still want face-to-face contact not mediated by a camera and monitor? If so, how can churches fulfill that role in the present day? If not, then the question of what the church's future is is a serious one.
But so is the question whether our societies are fragmenting to such an extent that nothing else helps to bring us together and provide cohesiveness. Is anything else stepping into the places and roles that churches once filled?
Is the demise of churches merely akin to the demise of bookstores, or of coal mines, something that is part of the inevitable and painful changes societies undergo? Or is there a social as well as spiritual role the disappearance of which could not be easily substituted for by virtual interactions?
How worried should we be?