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Empty Churches – Where Should We Draw The Line?

 

“Religion is popular only when it ceases to be truly religious. Religion by its very nature is unpopular – certainly unpopular with the ego.” (Archbishop Fulton J Sheen)

Recently, an interesting article was brought to my attention. Appearing in The Morning Call (Allentown, PA), the point was raised that organized religion was on the decline throughout the area. More and more, organized religion is coming under attack, as evidenced by the recent YouTube video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus”. While the idea of individuals creating their own personal version of Jesus’ teachings is nothing new, this philosophy is now creeping into organized religion. Evidence of this can be seen in a comment made by Rev. Tony Sundermeier, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Allentown (in the above article):

“We create a space for different ways for people to engage with God. I still think people are spiritual and religious. It’s just not orthodox Christianity they’re looking for.”

Reaching Out or Dumbing Down?
In an attempt to reach out and bring people back to church, some Christian churches are bending over backward to give the people what they want, rather than what they need. If the teachings of Jesus are too challenging, let’s change them so that they are more appealing. Strong evidence of this can be seen in the churches that proclaim the “health and wealth gospel”. Sometimes referred to as prosperity theology, the message is that faithful believers will be rewarded with financial wealth. While this can be an attractive message, it is certainly not the message lived and proclaimed by Jesus Christ. Additionally, some churches water down their teaching to make it more “user friendly” and appealing. In other words, let’s make going to church fun. If we take away the negativity and challenging doctrine, then people will come back in droves. Sadly, I’ve even seen this in some Catholic parishes and it is a big mistake. Christians deserve the truth and not a watered down message that “feels good”. For, although it might feel good now, a diluted set of religious doctrine isn’t going to help us get to Heaven! The question that must be asked is, although it may attract more people to church (and even this is debatable), what good does it do to remove the difficult, but necessary, aspects of Christianity?

What Does The Bible Say?
While I don’t claim to have all the answers, I do know that the Bible provides some valuable clues about truth. In his letter to Timothy, Saint Paul states that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tm 2:4). That statement implies that absolute truth exists, God wants us to know that truth, and learning and obeying it will allow us to get to Heaven. Given that statement, it’s easy to see why distorting that truth could be problematic. While I understand why this is being done, what is the point of getting people in your church if you’re not going to give them the teaching that they need to one day achieve salvation?

There is no doubt that the truth will cause division, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be spoken. What does Jesus have to say about the truth?

“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Lk 12:51-53)

Furthermore, the words of Jesus as He commissioned the Apostles affirms the importance of always preaching the whole truth:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Mt 28:19-20)

Note that Jesus didn’t say to share only His pleasant and less challenging teachings…He said to teach ALL that He commanded. This includes unpopular and difficult teachings, even if they’re met with resistance. Jesus encountered this difficulty first hand when He taught about the necessity of the Eucharist for salvation. In His Bread of Life discourse (Jn 6: 22-71), when He proclaimed that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life within you” (Jn 6:53), many of His disciples said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6:60). Instead of backing down or modifying this crucial teaching, Jesus let many of His disciples walk away from Him. (Jn 6:66). Why? Because He couldn’t compromise the truth!

A Catholic Response
As Catholics, we are blessed to have the fullness of truth and, under no circumstances, can we change the truth in order to make it more palatable. Although we should become creative and try to meet people “where they are”, the “Good News” can’t be changed. For, in doing so, we’d be hurting people rather than helping them. Although it’s a challenge, we need to educate people about Church teachings. As many of us cynics have discovered, the teachings of the Church really do make sense once they are prayerfully explored with an open mind. That’s the great thing about truth…it’s TRUE!

Isn’t This The Clergy’s Job?
As lay Catholics, what can we do to combat declining Mass attendance? Isn’t this the job of the priests and deacons? In actuality, we should all be concerned about this matter. If you think about it for a minute, it’s not easy for the clergy to reach out to those who no longer attend Mass. Furthermore, the Church teaches that evangelization is the responsibility of ALL baptized Catholics. In his apostolic letter, Porta Fidei (The Door of Faith), Pope Benedict XVI observed:

The renewal of the Church is also achieved through the witness offered by the lives of believers: by their very existence in the world, Christians are called to radiate the word of truth that the Lord Jesus has left us.

In order to share the truth with others, the first thing we should do is learn, understand AND LIVE the teachings of the Catholic Church. Then, as charitably as possible, we should share these teachings with others. Our Church is blessed to have the fullness of truth and it would be wrong to keep this treasure to ourselves. With whom should we share? Everyone around us – our family, friends, coworkers and any others who we encounter in our daily lives.

Using The Internet
Do you spend a lot of time on the Internet? Why not use it for sharing the faith? One of the great things about the Internet and social media is the ability to reach those who no longer go to Church. Here are some simple and concrete steps that we can all take to share the truth with others:

Share good Catholic articles with others via email.

Post inspirational quotes on Facebook or Twitter.

“Like” solid Catholic fan pages, groups or posts on Facebook.

Create your own Catholic website, podcast, Facebook group or Twitter account.

Whether we do it on the Internet or face to face, we must never stop proclaiming the true teaching of the Catholic Church. In the end, that truth is what is going to save souls. Sometimes people will get offended and “walk away”, but that shouldn’t deter us from delivering the “Good News” IN FULL. It happened to the prophets, it happened to the Saints and it happened to Jesus…and that’s some good company!

“No one is truly poor but except the one who lacks the truth.” (St. Ephraem the Syrian)

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