Research claiming to explain the relationship between low rates of churchgoing and longer life spans makes fascinating reading.
It can never be the whole story, as there is always the United States exception – high churchgoing, long lives – and there are other ways of accounting for the low church attendance in Europe.
Niall Ferguson’s masterly conclusion to his “Civilization: Is the West History?” series recently suggested a few, including the sheer selfishness engendered by our addiction to consumer goods.
But the notion that people don’t go to church because they know they’ll probably live into their 80s and they don’t see why they should waste their precious youth on religion has a good deal to commend it.
Historically, fear of hell has been used as an incentive for good behavior.
Hence, the great judgment scenes in some of our great medieval churches, and the blood-curdling visions of preachers like Jonathan Edwards (the 18th-century Puritan, not the current general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain); “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” no doubt scared many into the church.
No doubt some will argue that it is the general reluctance of many evangelicals today to use such tactics, whatever their beliefs about eternal punishment, which is in part responsible for the current weakness of the church in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe.
But this view hardly carries conviction. Whatever the ethics of this form of evangelism – and surely majoring on God’s wrath rather than on his love is open to question on that basis – its practical effect would surely be to convince people that they should not become Christians, rather than that they should.
The authors of “The Greying Church,” however, have positive things to say. First, churches should accept that many of their congregations will be elderly, and this isn’t a bad thing in itself.
As people grow nearer to death, it is inevitable that they are more open to thoughts of mortality. If this brings them to faith late in life, they should be welcomed.
But second, their work encourages us to consider when we invite people – to come to church, to an Alpha or Christianity Explored course or to Christ – what we are actually inviting them to.
Is it simply to sign up for a postmortem insurance policy so that they can escape the consequences of the evil deeds done in their lifetimes?
We know very well that younger people don’t find church attractive today. We know, too, that they are not less idealistic, morally aware, committed or concerned about the future than young people of previous generations.
So the question for us is, “What can we show them, or offer them, or ask of them, which makes the church worth belonging to not when they are old, but right now, when they have a lifetime of service ahead of them?”
If we portray the benefits of faith as being all in the future, it is no wonder if younger people choose to live in the present.
If we portray faith as all demand and no blessing, it is no wonder if the attractions of the present trump the call to conversion.
If we cannot give young people a cause they believe is worth living for now, it is no wonder if they dismiss us as irrelevant to their lives today: we are.
We do not have to resign ourselves to empty churches. But if younger people are to fill them, it will be because they see a full-blooded, world-changing gospel of salvation at work in them, a movement that catches their imagination and fires their spirits.
If we can nerve ourselves not to care too much about what people think of us, to drive banality and triviality out of our songbooks and prayers, to be honest about our weaknesses and celebratory about our strengths: If, in short, we can recover the confidence that too many of us have lost (another theme of Niall Ferguson’s, incidentally) we will have churches worth joining.
Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and managing editor for ChristianToday.com. He served previously as the editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain.