I’ve just finished reading the latest Quarterly Essay, called Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia, written by Amanda Lohrey.
There is so much that is insightful, disturbing and challenging in this excellently written piece.
It begins and ends with discussions with young people attending one of the ‘mega-churches’ which have come to prominence and to political influence in the last few years.
The essay suggests that these groups of Pentecostals and Evangelicals do not in fact comprise really large numbers of voters, but they have been very effective in creating the impression that they do, and that their political clout is much more than it really is. But what they do have is strategic influence, out of all proportion to their numbers—and the politicians know this, and some of them like it that way.
Conversely Lohrey shows that in fact governments make use of these groups, when and as it suits them, but also ignore them when they want to.
Amidst all this Lohrey has some really valuable and challenging things to say.
First, I was confronted by her reporting (on pages 27f) of market research which shows that ‘the church’ as such in Australia is about the biggest losing case you could imagine. Hence there is so much emphasis among new groups on ‘not’ being church: the church you have when you are not having a church.’Despite all the ballyhoo about a Christian revival, as regular church-goers Australians still rate at only 9 per cent.’ In another article this same weekend, I read that church attendance in one of the main line denominations has dropped markedly since the year 2000. And some of these denominations have a very skewed demographic: more than 30% of Anglicans are over 70 years of age.
The church also has an image problem arising from one of the things it would see as a success, Lohrey says. People turn to the churches when they are in need, for comfort, help with housing or clothing or food. But this is interpreted in the wider ‘market’ as meaning that church is for losers. You wouldn’t want it known that you started going to church. People might think you were in trouble, or had lost your job.
As a result of these ‘image’ problems, the a marketing strategy for one Christian group has proposed to ‘keep the church, the Bible and religion well out of the picture. Instead, the spot-light falls on just one star. Jesus is played not as the son of God but a tough-talking no-nonsense philosopher who makes life easier and, incidentally, eternal.’ (p28). In short, as Lohrey puts it, ‘the church is hopeless but Jesus is cool.’
But of course this is a certain kind of Jesus. As she goes on to show, this Jesus is whatever people want to make of him. Jesus separated from the Bible, from ‘religion’ or the Christian community is indeed the projection of our wishes and hopes. He can make life easier, in a way, for a time. He may be tough-talking, but in the end this Jesus does not relate people to God. If we begin by trying to leave out his relationship to God, then this Jesus is nothing more than another wise teacher, who makes possible a kind of ‘religion’ that makes no inconvenient demands, just makes us feel good.
Lohrey shows that this is the emphasis of some of the groups she studied.
I must add, though, that she also shows some of the great achievements of the newer ‘churches’. You have to admire them, in many ways. I am glad that so many people are in fact trying to find faith, meaning, values and healing, in their individual lives and their relationships. I welcome all this. I am glad that some churches at least have come out of the straight-jackets of traditions which turn people right off.
The sad thing is when this leads to a kind of immature faith, with no ethical demands at all. I don’t believe this is universal, in all these forms of church. And while I know that there is a serious issue of mis-appropriation of Government funds, on the part of one of these churches (documented on page 26-27), this alone should not be used to condemn all they do, nor all that other churches of this kind are doing.
There are other big challenges here. Next, I will try to say something about the theology and the image of God inherent in this new spirituality. Very interesting stuff!