It depends from where you make the evaluation and judgment!
Anyone who is old enough and has a long enough memory is aware of many changes that have occurred in the customs and ways of western churches since World War II and more especially since the 1960s.
Here are some of them described briefly and not scientifically from a conservative viewpoint:
1.A major change in attitude towards the Lord’s Day. Once it was a day of rest and gladness; now it is church in the morning (or even Saturday evening) and then free to pursue other things the rest of Sunday. The sense of a day of rest and of being with the Lord has virtually disappeared and so has the evening service in many places.
2. A major change in outward dress for divine worship. Once it was wearing one’s formal best in order to meet with the King; now it is usually wearing comfortable casuals to meet with the heavenly Friend.
3. A major change in the way God is addressed in prayer. Once it was always, “Thou/Thee” and now it is nearly always “You”. With this comes usually also an informality to worship and perhaps a seeming lack of reverence for the LORD.
4. A major change in the type of Bible used in church. Once it was the KJV or one of the versions in the tradition of this “English Bible”. Now it is often one or several of the new types of versions which are more of a paraphrase than a translation. This has led to a serious decrease in Bible memorization from any version.
5. A major change in the discipline with respect to sexual relations and marriage. Once the marriage of a divorcee in church was rare, now it is very common. Once a divorced and remarried clergyman was extremely rare, now he is not rare. Further, the church turns a blind eye now to couples (of the opposite sex or the same sex) living together. Physical contact between members of the opposite sex is all too common and often for a religious purpose – “the passing of the peace”.
6. A major change in the actual basis for morality. Once it was clearly the Law of the Lord, His Commandments and Statutes. Now it is much more the content of modern Human Rights and the Commandments of God seen in the light of these. One result is a dumbing down of standards and of expectations of standards.
7. A major change in the person and role of the priest/pastor. From being the godly and learned man who preaches the Word, administers the sacraments and exercises pastoral care, the modern Minister, female or male, is now more the “manager” of the congregation and the “counselor” of all who need advice or help. Likewise Bishops or superintendent Ministers are seen more as chief executive officers and chief liturgical officers rather than Fathers in God. Candidates for ordination tend to leave their education & training as jacks of various trades and masters of none, not even of the Bible or of its languages.
8. A major change in the understanding and presentation of Salvation & Redemption from God. From being primarily that which shall be in the age to come (heaven) and of which there is a foretaste now in this age, salvation is often now interpreted with the help of psychotherapy and tends to be as much in this age as in the age to come.
9. A major change in the way in which the ethos & development of general western culture is regarded. Once there was a great concern not to be conformed to the world but to be in the world and for the world while not being of the spirit of the world. Now in a variety of ways the churches follow the spirit of the world because they believe that God is revealing his nature and will through what is happening in the world at large. What once was the domain of Satan is now regarded as the sphere of God’s self-revealing and as such is to be embraced.
10. A major change in the way that the mission of the Church in the world is perceived & executed. Once there was a certain commitment to the uniqueness of Christ and of the need to proclaim him everywhere as the only Savior and Way to the Father – to be accompanied by the good works of education, medical services etc. Now Christ is usually presented as an inclusive Savior rather than an exclusive one and much of the message of the churches is about peace and justice in the world.
These changes, with many others, have occurred in churches in Western Society as the process of secularization in the West has continued and as church attendance, especially in Europe and Canada, has decreased rapidly. Some of the changes were made consciously to try to retain or win back members by being relevant and credible in a changing world. Others were made to try to get rid of what were deemed to be bad or unsatisfactory attitudes, ways and customs. Yet others were made in order to make Christianity easier to embrace and hold!
It would appear to be the case that anyone today who keeps the Lord’s Day seriously going to church twice, who dresses formally for worship, who addresses God as “Thee/Thou”, who reads the KJV or the R V or the A S V or the R S V. daily, who thinks that the churches should be graciously strict concerning who is married in church, who believes that before God we have no rights but only duties and responsibilities, who holds that the pastor should be a godly and learned man, who accepts that salvation is out of sin and this world into the glorious world of the age to come, who thinks that the church is to be in the world and for the world but not of the world, and who believes, teaches and confesses that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life in an exclusive sense, is these days out of step even with “conservative” and “orthodox” opinion in the generality of evangelical and main-line churches.
To put all this in another way; he who conforms to what was generally regarded in say 1960 as the basic requirements of being a Christian is today perceived as hopelessly out of touch and perhaps weird – certainly irrelevant and probably “a fundamentalist”!
Interestingly, in Britain & Europe many young people, usually but not always born into Muslim homes, are embracing Islam in its full traditional form, or at least in as full a form as it is possible to live it in the modern West rather than the Arabian desert. As Christians become more liberal in the practice of their Faith, so Muslim young people become more conservative in the practice of their Religion.
There is no possibility or purpose in seeking to go back to 1960 for we live in 2004. However, we can learn from the past and use that understanding to evaluate where we are today, asking whether or not we have so lowered the standards of the Christian Faith as to make It all too easy to embrace and not worth dying for.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon, October 4, 2004