I was invited to the official opening of a church extension in Co Down recently. It was a really encouraging event, for there are times when one could be tempted to think that the church, if not totally dead, has lost its credibility and influence.
I was disturbed the other evening as I watched a TV documentary about what must be one of the most bizarre trends in America. The programme was called The Secrets Of The Living Dolls and was about the world of “female masking” – men who dress in rubber “second” skins from head to toe in order to look like life-sized female dolls, complete with a mask bearing the impeccable image of a glamorous girl, frilly underwear and flouncy dresses.
Now you could say that they’re not doing any harm: strange behaviour to be sure, but harmless. But ironically, what I find most disturbing is not that a tiny proportion of males get some sort of perverted kick out of wearing a female body suit, but the “spirit of whatever” promoted by the Channel Four programme.
It’s the view that nothing is right or wrong in itself, that there are no moral absolutes, and it’s the fact that the trendy view that there is no such thing as truth, only perspectives, has infiltrated the church.
I spoke to Lord Morrow recently about his anti-trafficking Bill, currently going through the Assembly. Now, wouldn’t you think that the churches would be falling over themselves to lend their names in support of such a piece of legislation?
Given that people-trafficking is slavery, that an estimated 12,000 such people currently live in the UK, and that there are said to be more slaves in the world today than there were when Wilberforce successfully stood against it, surely religious leaders could not do other than enthusiastically line up behind the noble lord?
But no. Not a single Protestant denomination is prepared to back the courageous man.
Is it any wonder that churches are haemorrhaging members, when a watching world concludes that organised religion stands for nothing but maintaining its own self interest?
Operation Mobilisation, that great international evangelistic movement founded by my friend George Verwer, carried out research a few years ago to find out what percentage of their income, on average, the UK churches give to their core function: mission work. It was found that just over 97 per cent of the churches’ income was devoted to self preservation. Less than 3p in each £1 of the income of the average British church was directed to the Great Commission: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel.”
What part of “Go!” do they not understand? Remember what Jesus said? “If you want to know where your heart is, look to where you store your treasure.” (my paraphrase)
That said, I have thought a lot about that church extension I attended recently, and others, and I find some comfort there. The world is in chaos, secularisation is the buzz word, it is thought that up to a quarter of ministers of religion in Northern Ireland are experiencing burn-out due to stress, and yet quietly in the background, steadily and surely, you can see the prophecy of Jesus still being fulfilled two millennia after it was spoken: “I will build my church.”
Yes, there is hope.