The Decline or Rise of Faith?

The conventional wisdom of our day says that faith is on the decline. Supporting this idea is the measurable decline in the percentage of people who demonstrate a religious life. This is seen most drastically in the so-called “millennial” generation, who are statistically the least religious generation in recorded history. Even a city like Grand Rapids, not long ago known as “the city of churches,” has seen a great decline in measurable behaviors like church attendance and participation in religious activities. And let’s face it—this isn’t a generalized problem in the area surrounding our parish. Like most parishes, ours has not been immune to the problem of many so-called “members” of our community who no longer come to church. Since I arrived at St. Nicholas almost two years ago, many of our parishioners have given me names of people who have stopped attending church. I’m now on my THIRD page of such names.

In my reflection from a week ago, I suggested that the acts of faith we make in our life increase the likelihood of future acts of faith, and that the opposite is also true: when we act (or don’t act) out of a lack of faith, we are likely to continue in that direction with more acts lacking faith. If we bring this understanding to bear on the reality of large numbers of our own parish no longer participating in the life of the Church, we come to an inescapable conclusion: whatever experience of faith we have lived was not powerful enough to engender faith in large numbers of our community. And I think there are important lessons to be learned if we are to turn the tide on losing so many of our parishioners.

Religion in America used to be a given. Most people belonged to a church, and most were pretty regular in attendance. For many, the church was not just the center of their spiritual life but their social life as well. But that was a different time. Gone are the societal or social encouragements to religious participation. In their place is a growing skepticism of religion, and now one needs to defend having a religious practice rather than defending any lapse in such practice.

All of this might sound like I’m painting a bleak picture. While there is no doubt that there are many negative aspects of our modern religious environment, there is a silver lining on these dark clouds. Running counter to the faithlessness of our culture are signs of an experience of faith—even among our youth–that while perhaps not being widespread is remarkably profound.

As you know, I’m spending this week and next serving as one of the session priests at the Antiochian Village. The Village is just one example a deepening of faith in a time when we’ve put most of our attention on numbers of participants. Children attend—and actively participate—in not simply a “standard” one church service a week, or even one per day, but twice daily. This in addition to two hours of Christian Education daily, prayers sung before and after every meal, and a weaving of the Faith into every aspect of the day from sportsmanship on the soccer field to the shared chores of cabin cleanup. This could all be chalked up to something parents force on their kids were it not for the fact that most of the kids who come to the Village say it’s the best two weeks of their year. Don’t believe me? See for yourself if I’m exaggerating one bit by looking at some of the pictures of this camp session.

At a time in our culture when the surface currents lead people away from an active faith, we need to provide deeper experiences to our youth, and really to everyone, which support active engagement in a life of faith. Experiences through ministries like SOYO, the Village, our Young Adult ministry and OCF offer many such experiences in which they can, in the words of beloved Metropolitan PHILIP, “dive to the depths of our faith.”

We may have assumed that we’re in a period of religious decline when, in fact, we may be seeing the beginnings of a spiritual awakening and growth. Yet, this spiritual awakening is not just for our youth; it is for all of us! The question each of us has to ask ourselves is this: are we, individually and corporately, longing for God? Are we positioning ourselves to be spiritually awakened? The Church sets the table for our spiritual nourishment through opportunities for worship, Bible study, fellowship, and service. Are we willing to engage, realizing that through our engagement (an act of faith), we will encounter God? Today let’s examine our hearts and then proclaim with the Prophet David, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42: 1-2). Regardless of what’s happening with the decline of faith in society, this same time offers us a multitude of opportunities to step out in faith and encounter God in life changing ways. Our children at the Village are doing that as I write this, and each of us is offered our own opportunities, although in different ways, to encounter God just as powerfully. The only real question that matters is this, in each of us personally, is Faith on the decline or on the rise?